Google, China and Anti-Features

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

On the 12th of January, David Drummond, Google’s Chief Legal Officer, made a startling announcement: Google – and dozens of other companies operating in China – had been the target of concerted online attacks originating from China. Google also claimed that the attackers, targeting human rights activists inside China and around the world, used the activists’ own PCs to take over numerous GMail accounts.

These attacks used ‘0-day’ exploits, hitherto-unknown vulnerabilities in common software applications. In a Wired Magazine interview, security analyst Ryan Olson stated that the code itself was unremarkable, but that ‘the sophistication here is all about the fact they were able to target the right people using a previously unknown vulnerability.

Businesses and governments face online acts of vandalism and attempts at corporate espionage all the time. Even this attack, which exploited flaws in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Adobe’s Acrobat reader software, was ‘not ground-breaking’, according to security expert Mikko Hypponen.

We see this fairly regularly,’ he told the BBC, but ‘most companies just never go public.

Running against tide of companies flooding into China, Google has retaliated against these intrusions by stating that they will no longer censor, their Chinese search site. If that can’t be done within Chinese law, wrote Drummond, it ‘may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

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Selling Democracy – ctd.

Farhad Manjoo says the Revolution will not be digitised. His recent Slate column, subtitled “How the Internet helps Iran silence activists” makes the obvious point that technology makes all aspects of communications easier – even the unpleasant ones. But his simplistic analysis misses the import of his own observation.

The key to all this is his failure to distinguish between the network and the protocol. Manjoo says that the Internet helps Iran’s repressive efforts. That’s not true, at least not nearly to the extent he thinks. The network – the physical infrastructure of cables, switching and routing equipment, is what’s trapping people right now. If it weren’t for the end-to-end nature of the software protocols that make up what we conveniently call the Internet, little if any news at all would have emerged from Iran.

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Go With the Flow

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

NOTE: In a small place such as Vanuatu, it often happens that one has to wear a number of different hats. I work as an IT consultant, offering advice and information to clients in the private, public and civil society sectors. I am also a writer and photographer. I volunteer some of my time to help with local IT projects, and I serve as interim secretary of the Vanuatu IT Users Society. This column is written under those auspices, but from time to time my professional work bleeds into the area of advocacy and awareness-raising. In cases where I have a professional involvement or interest in a particular issue, I will make that clear within the text of the column.

No writer is free from bias. This is especially true of columnists. While I make every effort to ensure that any facts and statements appearing in this space are properly corroborated, I reserve the right to interpret them according to my own experience, judgement and insight. It’s my job to have an opinion. Unless I state otherwise, the views expressed here are my own.

Knowledge is power.

Everyone knows that expression, and many of us have to grapple with its practical implications every day. When we’re tracking down the person who knows how a particular thing works, digging through arcane data in order to become the person who knows, or whether we’re trying to pry special knowledge loose from a reluctant source, we find ourselves operating in an economy of scarcity.

When we trade in knowledge, we also rely on its scarcity to determine its value. If we have a juicy piece of gossip about someone, we don’t tell it to everyone and their dog. Instead, we parse our words and choose our confidants carefully, sometimes teasing them with partial revelation.

Let’s reformulate that initial statement, then:

Scarce knowledge is power.

If we follow the logic of that sentence, we are prone to conclude that widespread knowledge is therefore valueless. In the cash economy, if there’s too much money floating around, we experience inflation. Dollars lose their value because everyone has them. This has led some barstool philosophers to conclude that opinions, too, are of little value because ‘everyone’s got one.’

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Whose Success?

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

I don’t often talk about my motives. Newspapers, in my opinion, make lousy confessionals. I’ll make an exception today, because it helps make a point.

I recently experienced a curious moment. I’d spent a sunny Port Vila Saturday at the office catching up on email, news and whatnot. There were a couple of stories in the local newspaper about communications companies setting up shop here, there was a link to a story about ‘eternal’ airplanes – unmanned spy planes that never have to land. There was a story about spy agencies listening to our Skype calls. One about radio tag implants for everyone, so we can be tracked more easily.

I locked my screen, turned off the lights, and headed out of the office. The sun was westering, drifting almost level with the bay. An acquaintance happened by and invited me for coffee.

I found myself curiously disoriented. It’s happened before, and will no doubt happen again. In the course of a few steps, I’d traveled from an echoing data chamber to a sleepy village where strangers don’t exist.

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