Wednesday, January 09, 2019

The Southern Border may not provide much of a genuine national security emergency, but the Internet could do so suddenly at any time, because of long-tail asymmetry

Saturday, I wrote a “book report” post on my Books blog about presidential national security emergencies, and looked into whether they could affect the Internet.

The border “crisis” hardly qualifies as a war-time security threat in the sense that is normally understood – although there is some evidence that in some areas more actual wall or fence construction is needed. The Democrats are wrong to be so intransigent on this.

But my concern is that a national security agency could go way beyond using funds to build the wall.

 Andrea Pitzer gives a perspective in the Washington Post on how these powers have been used in the past, and in other countries. 

Of greatest concern, as noted in the Book blog, is the Internet. As such, it has little to do with the border crisis itself.  But the whole world of user-generated content that has built so many careers for “content creation” does pose asymmetric risks of sudden catastrophes, much in the spirit of Nicholas Taleb’s “Skin in the Game.”

After 9/11, when there was an emergency for a while, one concern was steganography: the idea that hacker could place instructions for future attacks to other conspirators as coded information on amateur websites.  My old “hppub” website was hacked in April 2002, right in the middle of an essay (later from my DADT II book) where I talk about suitcase nuclear weapons.  A similar hack has not happened since.

Just like Charles Moskos’s idea of resuming conscription (and simultaneously ending his “don’t ask don’t tell”), it got forgotten.  But it could have shut down my participation online if people had noticed.  (I did report the 2002 hack to the FBI.)
A more relevant example now is the Sony hack by North Korea, as a result of Kim Jong Un’s insult at a film “The Interview” in 2014.  Google itself laughed at the incident.  But a more dangerous idea could be that even an amateur post insults someone overseas and leads to reprisal, even possibly back in the US, the idea of “to prove I can” entering. Even one such incident, out of the blue, would create tremendous controversy.  I can imagine the movie plots and screenplay table readings on this idea right now.  This speculative idea seems to fit Nicholas Taleb’s idea of a “long tail” risk from his “Skin in the Game”, where a relatively well-off speaker attracts attention to other people whom the speaker has no stake in, and draws the attention of “enemies”.  Still, this idea that one is morally responsible for attracting risk to others seems to come right out of Mafia culture.
 Were there to be a single terror incident  (especially foreign-sourced) anywhere in the US related to this risk, much of the Internet probably would get shut down as part of a successive emergency order, and the familiar world of user generated content might not ever return.  The EU seems to be contemplating similar ideas (EFF has mentioned it but I haven't looked at it in detail yet.) So the whole idea of an emergency declaration of any kind now is "playing with matches". 

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