Monthly Archives: December 2009

Mistletoe and whine: an open letter to Christmas carol singers

Dear Christmas carol singers,

Don’t try to scalp me for a few quid “for charity” on my own doorstep ever again: it’s a waste of your time and mine.

If you’re any good and can make it through a Oh Come All Ye Faithful  without mumbling the second verse, the chances are you’re from an organised local group of chorists. In this case, the best thing you can do is leave me with a flier about any gigs you’ve got going on over the festive season.  I will gladly part with £5 of my wonga for a concert, covering your costs and providing a bung for whatever charity you are supporting. This would a) make more money for the charity, b) expand your audience beyond your ever-narrowing regular demographic of elderly congregationalists, and c) avoid that awkward moment where I have to pretend I don’t have any money for the ten people exhibiting signs of frostbite on my doorstep. I may even sign up for some singing lessons offered by your group.

If you’re a bunch of hoodies belting out the chorus of We Wish You A Merry Christmas over and over again, then you have no chance of ever getting any cashmoney out of me. This is because I think you are taking the piss out of me. The better thing for you to do is come around with a wheelbarrow of grit/rocksalt (nicked from one of the abundant public grit bin) and to offer to grit the doorstep and nearby road for a quid. I will gladly pay you money for this service, and if you want to sing at the same time I will not object.

So, carol singers: get smarter! I hope to see you next year with fliers or a wheelbarrow of grit.




Security dilemma (1): an online advice service for people experiencing honour-based violence or forced marriages

Practical Solutions, an organisation based in Blackburn, Lancashire, has set up a website to provide information about honour-based violence and forced marriages. The site has an online “confidential advice service” to enable a site user to request advice from an expert. A user creates an account with the site, and can submit a question after logging in. Answers from the Practical Solutions team will be accessible through this account. The site recognises that people wanting advice about forced marriages or honour-based violence may be put at risk in attempting to seek advice, so keeping confidentiality and discretion is necessasry. So, the site has a page called browse privately, which recommends the following:

When browsing the internet, your computer keeps a history of all websites that you have visited. If you do not delete this history, there is a chance that people will be able to see what websites you have visited. In order to minimise this risk of someone viewing your history, you can delete your temporary internet files, history and cookies.

The problem is that the if the adversary is aware of the browing history feature, as the average user probably is, then they may also feel its absence. If the inquirer chooses to completely clear the cache, the trade off is between the risks of a) an adversary directly discovering that the inquirer has been trying to access help, with immediate negative consequences for the inquirer; and, b) the adversary being suspicious that the browser has no history, and wondering what users of the computer are trying to prevent them from finding out, which may be equally as negative.

So, how could this service be made safer using techniques that are within the knowledge of the average Internet user?

Drippity Drip 21 December 2009

  1. A Rannygazoo ” is … a statement of news out of all proportion and almost out of relation to the facts, and yet having a certain origin and shadowy foundation. … In the classification of the Washington newspaper men there are fakes, reinikaboos, and real news. [Chicago Daily Tribune, 9 Jan. 1898.]”. Not as easily slipped into conversation as granfalloon, “a group of people whose cohesive purpose has little or no real meaning, yet whose members feel superior in some way.”  Via Word Wide Words and ChangingMinds.
  2. Human Rights Watch has accused the Cambodian government of forcing citizens to participate in trials of experimental drugs: “Since December 11, 2009, police have arrested at least 17 people and detained them in the government-run Orgkas Khnom drug detention center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. With no indication of voluntary consent, they were administered a seven-day course of an herbal formula called “Bong Sen.”” More from the Phnom Pen post, with a statement from Licadho: “To say that these people were willing to go is absurd … We’ve had so many reports of these street sweeps when these people are often violently taken out of the street into the centre. It’s not enough for them to say that there is a piece of paper they sign when they are at the centre. It’s quite easy to make people sign anything under duress.”
  3. At some point last week, lost control of its DNS creds, allowing someone with a grudge to take down the service and deface the site. Praetorianprefect has a solemn rundown of this  disgraceful assurance lapse and the hysterical press coverage about Iran’s cyberwar designs that followed. For anyone struggling to understand why and how someone would bother attacking Twitter, I suggest reading this Wired article called Assclown Offensive and the Project Gray Goose phase 1 report.

Done. For now.

Drip Drips 19 December 2009

Caught, sloshed:

  1. Indian sort-of-Sikh religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda starts a drive to “to halt the spread of HIV by offering respectable options to sex workers” by finding volunteers to marry them. The Beeb could have made a little effort and contacted organised sex workers to see what they think about this.
  2. On a sort-of-related theme, Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic by Nick Davies (him of the magnificent Flat Earth News), from October 2009. His article tracks back to source the numbers of trafficked sex workers that various UK political, charitable and governmental groups have used over the last decade. In 1998, researchers found 71 women who had been “trafficked” (according to a very wide definition), and – with strong caveats about lack of sources and accuracy – estimated the prevalence might be 20 times greater: so, 1,420. In 2000, this figure was quoted  as a certainty by a group called Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking Across Europe (CHASTE – oh please) and recycled by Crimestoppers. The Home Office researched the issue again in 2002, and – with suitable warnings about risk and accuracy – published a figure of 3,812 women working against their will in the UK. In June 2006, this was rounded up to 4,000 by Home Office minister Vernon Coaker, a number that was recycled by numerous charities including Care, the Salvation Army, and Anti-Slavery International. The real leap comes in 2007 from Denis MacShane MP, who announced in the Commons “according to Home Office estimates, 25,000 sex slaves currently work in the massage parlours and brothels of Britain”, a figure for which there was no Home Office research at all. The Mirror picked this up. In a later speech, MacShane used the figure of 18,000 from the police’s Operation Pentameter 2 sitrep: the police denied this was anywhere to be found. An leak to the Guardian of further analysis from Pentameter 2 said that after six months of raids on brothels to took for trafficked women, only 11 had been “made safe”. Another remarkable tale of churnalism? Not everyone agrees, accusing Davies of the falling for the trap of suggesting that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. UK groups are not alone in finding data gathering on trafficking hard, as this GAO report outlines.
  3. Moderately interesting linkswap between security geeks Drew Conway and John Robb over a recent piece of research in Nature about power laws and insurgency (which you can’t read, because it’s behind a paywall). The paper itself can be downloaded from the author’s Mathematics of War site (thanks for correcting me on that Neil).

Drip Drips 18 December 2009

Wrung from the day’s rags:

  1. Silo but Deadly, an article about IT in the financial services sector, and it’s potential contribution to the creditopalypse. Global IT spend in the financial services sector is USD503 billion. However:  “IT systems have led to a “deskilling of the risk process”, says SteveO’Sullivan of Accenture, a consultancy. At one end of the credit chain, bank employees were not given the proper incentives to review on-screen loan-application forms (a big British bank once had a surprising number of “astronauts” applying for loans because the job description was the first choice on a pull-down menu, says a former employee). At the other end, computer-generated risk numbers gave executives a false sense of security.” Bad workmen blaming their tools?
  2. The US Department of Defence’s Information Assurance framework is comprised of and contains reference to 195 policy documents, most of which you can now view through this glorious misuse of the portable document format. Sir Humphrey would be very at home. (Via Jeff Carr)
  3. Filipo Spagnoli continues his interesting series of iconic human rights violations with the killing of Neda Agha during anti-government protests in Tehran earlier this year. The harrowing video of her death has been left on YouTube. More archival footage of her killing and the follow up on The Hub.
  4. OpenDemocracy interviews Ludmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group about the origins of the human rights movement in Russia: “The Chronicle of Current Events first appeared in 1968, by which time we were already bursting with material. It was only then that we realised we’d become a movement. Until then we thought that we were just a circle of friends who were worried because people close to us had been sentenced. Everything happened smoothly and imperceptibly.” That’s sometimes how it happens.

War crimes in virtual worlds, virtual war crimes in the real world

My interests in gaming, technology and large scale atrocity appear to be colliding with more regularity, but two recent pieces of writing munge them together like badgers caught in a motorway pileup:

  1. A little Swiss NGO called Track Impunity Always (“TRIAL” – genius, right?) and Pro Juventute released a report called Playing by the Rules, which applies the rules of international humanitarian law to the the conduct of players in the fantasy worlds of first person shooter games. It looks at a blind spot in public policy concerning the content of violent video games, and their failure to reflect the accepted legal restraints on modern warfare.
  2. In the Cornell Journal of International Law appears an article by Stephen White called Brave New World: Neurowarfare and the Limits of International Humanitarian Law, which applys the rules of international humanitarian law to new weapons that are controlled directly by thought, an innovation that sounds like something that has escaped from the fantasy worlds of video games. Nobody except Peter Watts took much interest in this scholarly piece, which looks at an area where exotic technologies may leapfrog some of the general concepts underpinning international humanitarian law.

The wide arc of the TRIAL report is that because military-themed first person shooters rely on hyper realism for much of their appeal the gameplay should also incorporate laws that bind real militaries, such as the Geneva Conventions. TRIAL aim to prove the point that some of the things it is possible for players to do in games, if committed in real life would violate the laws of war, and that this is not well understood by game makers.  The researchers recruited some young gamers and watched them play twenty military-themed first person shooter games, recording gameplay clips when in the opinion of a team of legal experts (including Professor Marco Sassoli) a situation arose when there was potential for a virtual war crime. The researchers easily find examples of where a gamer is able and in some cases encouraged (here’s looking at you 24: The Game) to commit virtual war crimes. Such acts include executing hostages, torturing captured combatants, using heavy weapons without regard for proportionality, use of mercenaries and stealing property from civilians. They find a couple of examples where a gamer loses somehow for performing these acts, but dismiss them as insufficient.  Annoyingly, the report doesn’t analyse the game America’s Army although it has a strong in-game penalties for failing to following the rules of engagement. Anyhow, TRIAL’s legal analysis seems precise, is incredibly earnest and firmly makes the point that in-game conduct can indeed contravene the laws of war.

So what do they think are the consequences of this? The authors aren’t really clear, but they think it must be bad:

The message of the scenes [in games] should never be that everything is allowed, or that it is up to the player to decide what is right and what is wrong. In real life, this is not the way it works. In real life, there are rules and there are sanctions for violations of these rules. It is not up to the soldier or to the law enforcement agent to decide what is right and what is wrong. The events in Abu Ghraib have shown, what such “private justice”, even if carried out by well trained and high ranking officers, may lead to. (p. 43, TRIAL Report)

Did you see the sleight of hand?  If gamers do not follow the laws of war in game, then in a blink of the eye they will all be taking snapshots of themselves dragging Iraqi prisoners around on leads alongside Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederik‘s unit.  I suspect this innuendo was inserted by the authors in desperation on realising their research fails the “So what?” test because they don’t articulate or evidence the harm that is done when a player can choose to make their in-game character perform acts that resemble a war crime.

The strong inference, as noted, is that gamers performing war crimes might commit war crimes – however, this is far too bonkers to be taken seriously. A lighter inference could be that committing war crimes in games contributes to an erosion of public sympathy and support for the idea restraint in armed conflict. Still too strong. What we’re really left with is a more basic inference the authors hope we make for them: that virtual violence, of which this is one form, makes those experiencing it generally more aggressive and this is detrimental to their personal development. This general conclusion is the current high tide mark in peer-reviewed psychological research on violence and gaming (see Anderson, 2007), though it  is dismissed without analysis as shrill by gamers and the games industry. I would have liked to see TRIAL anchor their conclusions to this research more explicitly, making it an interesting and relevant contribution. It may also have helped them avoid the mangling they received by teh unforgiving Internetz.

Stephen’s White’s article on neurowarfare is different sort of beast, looking at the work done by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in trying to make humans control weapons with their mind:

Resolving the issue of whether a pilot remotely connected by a brainmachine interfaced UAV could incur criminal liability for having killed a person that the Geneva Conventions protect would prove particularly problematic because of the uncertain status of the role that the actus reus requirement plays in determining criminal responsibility. Before the existence of this type of weapons system, courts had no occasion to resolve whether the condition exists merely because of the evidentiary impossibility of proving a thought crime … (p. 196)

Drawing on psychological and systems research, White argues that a brainmachine can interpret and act on a human thought before the human connected to it is capable of choosing to act on that thought. If this is the case, then the problem for international criminal law is proving a person acted on their own will and intended to commit a prohibited act. A second strand of this article argues that the systems may become so staggeringly complicated that it would be impossible for any military commander to appreciate the sources and margins of error present in using these systems. Both of these problems  present challenges for the current legal regime, perhaps creating opportunities for users of these systems to act with impunity. White reckons that the solution to this problem is in expanding the concept of command responsibility to include civilian engineers of these new technologies, and the companies that employed them.

There are some linking themes between these two reports, but they are quite dicey. The first is the relevance of moral norms where a person is strongly detached from the consequences of their actions.  The second is the responsibliity of new groups of actors for strengthening the norms of international human rights, humanitarian and criminal law. TRIAL want game developers to take a greater role in standard setting, which is something initiatives like the Council of Europe’s Human rights guidelines for online games providers look to be working towards. However, a consequence of White’s article could be that the current standards may soon prove to be structurally inadequate as technological innovation challenges their foundational concepts.

Anyhow, interesting, no?

Drip, drip.

Thanks Warren: “Twitter: The Grease Trap Of The Human Meat Computer”. We should all get our own mental driptray; this is mine.