Phone Hacking Scandal Reinforces the Value of Basic Information Security

The recent phone hacking scandal, where reporters from Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World were accused of illegally accessing the voicemails of thousands of people including politicians, members of the royal family, the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and terror victims, has grown into a sordid, drawn-out affair resulting in the closure of the newspaper, the arrest of editor Rebekah Brooks, and the resignation of the head of London’s Metropolitan Police. The latest in an international string of “hacking” news such as attacks by LulzSec and Anonymous, the scandal once again brings the threat of information theft and espionage into the news. But what is phone hacking, and how can individuals and organizations defend against such attacks?

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The Revolution will be Tweeted… So What.

The internet facilitates a lot of amazing things.  It allows you to read my words, have an unlimited jukebox at YouTube, trade epic Rage Comics, LOLCats, p0wn newbz on XBox Live, and watch awesome viral marketing ads like this (rated R).  It has changed social interaction, as it has significantly reduced the tyranny of distance.  Though, what hasn’t changed are a lot of the things you’ll find outside your window, or how humans inherently treat power once they have it.

Roundabouts are a good analogy for what the internet can and cannot do. Mostly uncommon in the States, I had very little practice with them prior to moving to Europe. At first the merging methodology of roundabouts befuddled me, and I didn’t much care for them.  Now with six months of practice under my belt, I wish we had more of them in the States, they’re simply brilliant and better than ‘normal’ intersections.  Realizing this, I asked myself why, with the power of the internet to exchange ideas; why hasn’t the notion (or meme) of roundabouts caught on in the States?  The answer I come to is that while the internet can expose a person to ideas, it doesn’t change the cognitive patter of the individual enough to change behavior, that there is an environmental component to any behavioral change.  To me this is the waterline, where the power of the internet ends.

The power of the internet is the memes that move across it.  I don’t just mean LOLCats, or anything concocted by the trolls at 4Chan.  I mean that everything you see online is a meme or a meta-meme.  The roundabout meme cannot make a person adapt to roundabouts in real life any easier.  The person has to physically experience a roundabout to adapt and even appreciate it.

This fact seems largely lost on most people who make their living with Social Media, as well as give a false sense of ‘this time it’s different’ in geopolitics.

CAIRO — Egypt will not allow international groups to monitor its upcoming parliamentary election, the country’s military rulers announced Wednesday, echoing ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s argument that foreign electoral oversight would be an affront to Egyptian sovereignty.

Yes, the Arab Spring used the internet and Social Media to spread the sense of revolution and motivate people to take to the streets.  But, it hasn’t changed the basic human paradigm of what it is to hold power and what it takes to change who holds power.  This is the internet’s waterline in terms of the Arab Spring.

Am I saying that the hopes of many in regards to the Arab Spring are foolish?  No, I am not.  What I am saying is that the internet will not change the behavior of those in power alone.   Behavior is as much a function of one’s environment as it is the memes they have been exposed to.  The undue focus that has been paid to Social Media in the Arab Spring neglects the affect that environment has on behavior.  It is not a bold new age we’re in because of the internet and its memes.

What Is Hadoop and How Can I Use It?

When I’m playing Bruce Wayne instead of Batman, I’ve been doing some work about the open source distributed computing platform Hadoop, which has been revolutionizing the way massive, complex data is stored and analyzed. I’ve already mentioned how something like Hadoop can have a tremendous effect even in fields such as law enforcement, and some estimates say that in a few years 50% of our data will be stored on Hadoop. But what is it, what does it do, and how would we use it? I’ve recently put out a white paper through CTOlabs explaining the software and its intelligence applications, which provides some possible security related use cases. For anyone interested in learning more, the paper can be found after the break.

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Iran and dreams of a Eurasian diplomatic revolution

In the fluid and changing realm of geopolitics, there is a great danger into assuming that any arrangement is permanent because it is present, or rational because it is longstanding. The elevation of history into laws of history, and those into maxims of policy, leaves great opportunities for those who recognize the potential for change, and the ability to see that not all political arrangements are as natural as they may seem. Nevertheless, the eruption of such discontinuity into opportunity for policy change may not arrive on the schedule of those who would hope to exploit it. In the meantime, it is well to think about the potential for such radical changes, and recognize that while many of the principles of geopolitics, war, and strategy may be immutable, their present character is inherently ephemeral.

Persia was a country relatively friendly to the United States. When the idea of an American military presence in the Middle East was a ludicrous notion – indeed, when the very notion of a “Middle East” was finding coinage in the works of Curzon and Mahan – Persia was relatively friendly and open to US economic interests. American business came without fear of gunboats or imperial concessions, unlike the British and Russian empires closer to home. Americans tried to assist in supporting the development of the Persian armed forces as well, though all these efforts were comparatively minor. Continue reading

Facts Falling Behind

“A true Poem is the Daily Newspaper” – Walt Whitman,

With those words the poet captured the American realism movement, an embrace of facts over fiction. The movement faded around 1910, but a century later we face its anti-thesis, a general rejection of fact.

It struck me when my longtime mentor asked me about a phenomenon he’d observed in recent years: candidates for the Rhodes, Mitchell, Fulbright and other such prestigious scholarships remain ignorant of the most basic facts about the programs they apply to, such as amount of funding or even the subject of study. They don’t bother to obtain this simple, easily accessible yet crucial information.

This phenomenon is not only anecdotal. As the country clashes over the hovering debt ceiling, the fact is that 45% of Americans admit that they don’t understand the issue, according to the Pew Research Center;  but 75% of Americans claim that the debt “is a major problem the country must address now”. This means that at least 20% of Americans, say 60 million people, are knowingly sticking their heads in the sand! Continue reading

Book Review: You Say More Than You Think By Janine Driver


“Truthful people convey, while liars attempt to convince.” ~Janine Driver

Understanding body language, non-verbal communication is not done in an effort to read other people’s minds. Instead reading micro expressions and gestures is about getting an understanding of the situation, or establishing situation awareness based on the ongoing and evolving circumstances, peoples words and actions. Yes, what they say, their words, and then through a highly developed and fluid running Boyd Cycle, observation, orientation, decision and action cycle, that is, you establish a baseline pattern of what’s normal and then look for changes or deviations in that person(s) baseline. This equals what Janine Driver defines in her great book “You Say More Than You Think” as “Hotspots” areas that alert us to anxiety, stress or potential deception. Continue reading

Diesel Boats Forever!…or ever?

This post is a sort of extension of David Trombly’s excellent and thought provoking post Taiwan, sea denial, and the bounding of US dominance.

This post caught my eye for several reasons, not the least of which is that in another life I rode submarines (ballistic missile subs: USS VON STEUBEN (SSBN-632) and the commissioning crew of USS PENNSYLVANIA (SSBN-735)). Another is I attended on behalf of a former employer in 2001/2002 an industry day event soliciting interest in the US production of diesel electric submarines for the use of Taiwan (Republic of China, or ROC). US production was authorized (see background: here) because the ROC was having difficulty purchasing through European diesel boat manufacturers. Germany, Sweden, and France have proven platforms, as do the Russians and their KILO class. All of these nations export submarines, but few want to antagonize the ROC’s increasingly global neighbor China.

The industry day event was well attended, but as I sat there I had little confidence there would ever be a diesel electric submarine produced in a US shipyard. Here’s why: the US Navy is heavily vested in nuclear powered submarines which are incredibly expensive, with the most modern VIRGINIA Class coming in at around $2B a copy. When compared to modern diesel boats which run between $200-$300M, Big Navy understandably wants to avoid any possible comparisons—or for the question even to be raised. The industry event was more a public show of supporting Congress and the president than a serious inquiry, and nothing more than slides were produced (which is often the case in Washington, btw).

The USN is overextended by almost any measure, our national shipbuilding infrastructure is perhaps at its lowest point and our Fleet has less ships (about 283) than any time since WWI. We have about 70 submarines (18 OHIO Class of which 4 are guided missile submarines, 7 VA Class, 3 SEAWOLF, and about 43 older Los Angeles Class). These boats spend about half their time deployed, which drives up maintenance costs and cost to crew separated from family [the OHIO Class ships rotate crews about every 90 days] Our submarines are built exclusively in Groton, CT, and Newport News, VA. We have naval shipyards for heavy modifications, nuclear refueling/overhauls in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Bremerton, and Pearl Harbor (though I don’t believe Portsmouth or Pearl are authorized refueling facilities).

In this environment of increased op-tempo, and low numbers of ships/boats we have continuing challenges to the maritime domain, including China’s increasingly muscular approach in the South China sea and that age old naval scourge, piracy. (H/T Feral Jundi at Facebook)

These realities, combined with an ally in need (and perhaps many more potential customers) seem to form a perfect storm of need for a small fleet of stealthy, American-made diesel electric submarines. If the Obama administration wanted to strengthen it bonafides in East Asia and with the American public, it would reengage on the Taiwan submarine issue and this time, instead of a deal neither side could abide (our side the very thought and insane requirements, their side appropriating the funds). If Taiwan is willing to pay for R&D, allow the building shipyard to keep the design, and find an American suitor, that all translates into that three letter word Joe Biden is so fond of: jobs. Jobs that would have little to no reliance on the increasingly precarious federal government and shrinking defense budgets. Taiwan and the region would gain stealthy deterrents to potential Chinese mischief, the US could invigorate a fairly inbred shipbuilding industry with new talent, new ideas, and new competition, and maybe, just maybe we could build a few boats for those missions too mundane or cost-prohibitive for our nuke boats (like the piracy problem for a starter).

Postscript: As a former nuclear navy submariner, I am intimately familiar of the many positives nuke boats offer (I once spent 82 days submerged). My musing here is not a call for replacement, but rather to point out yet again (see this analysis), that our navy should have room for both in our increasingly complex world.

Please read my exchange with David at the Fear, Honor, and Interest post, as some innovative ideas not included in this post are presented.

This is cross posted from

Taiwan, sea denial, and the bounding of US dominance

There was some fuss lately over US reluctance to sell the Republic of China F-16 fighters. Supposedly, the US was imperiling a fellow democracy by refusing to sell it F-16Cs, and then downgrading the deal to F-16As with upgrades. What is missing from the conversation, as David Axe points out, is that new fighter aircraft are a pretty poor return on the investment as far as Taiwanese security is concerned.

Anything that the Chinese can reliably hit with a conventional ballistic missile is useless, along with anything that relies on it, if the Taiwan Strait dispute goes hot in a big way. This includes airfields, which is why Taiwan is prepared for highway operations for F-16s. However, Taiwan is not a big place and it is only a matter of time before the PLA 2nd Artillery hit those as well. Indeed, even as a 2008 RAND study determined, even with USAF support and ridiculously high probability of kill statistics, the sheer mass of Chinese airpower, combined with a narrowing qualitative gap, is enough to keep the air war from deciding a conflict in Taipei’s favor.

Instead of doubling down on the sunk costs of an air-centric strategy for defending the island, commentators have rightly suggested investments in other areas. Robert Haddick suggests switching to mobile missile launchers, although it is hard to see how these would be able to overcome the sheer Chinese quantitative superiority at hand. Axe suggests something which might make more sense – diesel submarines:

Realistically, Taiwan can only hope to delay a Chinese assault on the island long enough for international pressure and US reinforcements to convince Beijing that war is a losing proposition.

The best weapons for delaying a Chinese attack are ones that can’t be targeted by ballistic missiles – and that could confront a Chinese invasion fleet far from Taiwan’s shores. That means submarines.

Today, the Taiwanese navy operates just two combat-ready submarines, bought from the Dutch during a rare period when European nations were willing to risk angering Beijing by selling weapons to Taipei. In 2001, Washington approved the sale of eight new diesel-powered subs to Taiwan, but no US shipyards currently build such boats. Ten years later, the deal is still pending.

Unlike the F-16 sale, Taipei’s inability to purchase new submarines has a real bearing on the island’s ability to defend itself.

Although Haddick insists on mobile missile sites, one assumes that submarines would be better platforms for cruise missiles, particularly those oriented towards sinking PLAN vessels. Nevertheless, judged by the metrics of the past, the assumed US capability of defending Taiwan, whether directly or through bolstering Taiwanese defenses, is increasingly coming into question.

Now, this is far from a disaster. However effective the PLA’s capability to fight and perhaps even win wars within SRBM and MRBM range is, means only increased regional power, not extra-regional hegemony. However, to avoid turning these setbacks into a geopolitical catastrophe, the US needs to understand that things in East Asia cannot carry on as normal, and neither burden sharing nor doubling down qualitative superiority can change that.

In fact, pursuing either of these tracks without reevaluating our broader grand strategy in the region will merely sow instability and weaken US power. The notion that the Chinese are interested in pursuing a vision of burden sharing that has implications for the unity of their claimed territory is rather puzzling. So too is the notion that China is interested in contributing to the maintaining a vision of upholding the global commons that allows foreigners to violate its sovereignty, at least in the Chinese view. With a hat tip to Daniel Larison, Lyle Goldstein explains why the US idea of freedom of navigation is so unappealing to the Chinese: Continue reading

How covert war is made

In the latest incident in the rapid deterioration of the US-Pakistani relationship, the ISI have picked up a Pakistani doctor that it claims, and the Guardian reports, was involved in a horrifying breach of medical ethics. According to the Guardian’s sources, the CIA recruited this doctor to conduct a fake vaccination drive in Abbottabad, hoping to corroborate bin Laden’s sister’s DNA with residents of the mysterious compound where US operators would later terminate the al Qaeda head. Chris Albon is dead on about the disastrous medical and public health implications of this story, which will seriously endanger health workers even if the story was a complete fabrication:

If true, the CIA’s actions are irresponsible and utterly reprehensible. The quote above implies that the patients never received their second or third doses of the hepatitis B vaccine. And even if they did, there is absolutely no guarantee that the vaccines were real. The simple fact is that the health of the children of Abbottabad has been put at risk through a deceptive medical operations by the Central Intelligence Agency. Furthermore, the operation undermines future vaccination campaigns and Pakistani health workers by fueling conspiracy theories about their true purpose.

Let us be clear about one thing: health care is not a weapon and any use of it as such deserves full-throated condemnation.

All that said, one can feel many things about this story, but one thing I do not feel is surprised – not at all. The CIA and clandestine organizations like it do not subscribe to the same ethical standards as many professions they come in contact with. They are neither doctors, lawyers, police, nor even soldiers. The point of the CIA is not to do legal things quietly, it is to do what the government of the United States believes must be done quietly. We pay clandestine organizations to do things nobody else can or will, and if we pay them more, we pay them to do it without anyone else – or the American public – finding out. The ability of the CIA to accomplish its objectives without needing to care for the standards of other professions, laws, or codes of ethics is a feature, not a bug. Continue reading