security

The South China Sea

Are you looking for an online resource that students might use to quickly understand the South China Sea dispute between China and its neighbors? You could do much worse than this brief video that was shared on Twitter. I know that we sometimes think of Twitter as the host for emotional oversharing, Russian bots and disinformation campaigns, but @9DashLine and @SCS_news are good feeds to follow if you want to keep abreast of the latest information on the South China Sea issue.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Facebook, Twitter and Security

Image of globe on light, Arts Building, McGill University. Photo by Smallman

Last quarter I was  teaching a fully online course Digital Globalization, while this quarter I am teaching an online class on Cyber-warfare and espionage. In these courses we cover topics such as  Snowden, Wikileaks, Anonymous, white and black hat hackers, NSA, zero day exploits, the Panama Papers and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. What’s interesting is the division within my students regarding privacy. There are a minority of students who are unconcerned about the issue because they feel that if they haven’t done anything wrong, why should they worry? But there is a much larger group of students who feel that this is a significant anxiety in their lives. Although they worry about the government tracking their activities, they are even more concerned about how their lives are tracked by businesses. Every time they go on social media, have a sensitive conversation near Google Home or Alexa, or text message a friend, they wonder a little about how their digital lives make them vulnerable.

Whats amazing is how little security is built into many online platforms. But few platforms have faced as much criticism as Facebook. To help understand why, you might read this post by Krebs on Security: Facebook Stored Hundreds of Millions of User Passwords in Plain Text for Years. As the article explains, this meant that Facebook’s employees could have accessed peoples’ accounts over a very long period, although Facebook says there is no evidence that they did. Since people often reuse passwords, this was a terrible security breach. Facebook is key to many peoples’ social lives. But given its flaws, it’s worth remembering never to reuse passwords, especially with Facebook. It also wouldn’t hurt, to enable two-factor authentication on key accounts (such as your bank), and always use a VPN on public wifi.

Of course Facebook isn’t the only social media tool that has security vulnerability. One of the best ways to keep in touch with digital issues is through Wired magazine, which had a recent article
Twitter Insiders Allegedly Spied for Saudi Arabia. In this case, what happened was that two employees were able to access accounts, and to pass on this information to Saudi Arabia. Social media is a wonderful tool. But one of the key concepts in my digitally focused classes is that there is no absolute privacy online, only relative privacy. This fact cannot be escaped by using the Dark Web, as the Egotistical Giraffe exploit with TOR showed. Remember what happened on the Silk Road with the Dread Pirate Roberts (yes, named after a character in the movie, the Princess Bride). Even the most savvy digital user leaves breadcrumbs. No software tool, VPN, or hardware can elide this fact. And in the age of the Internet Archive, nothing online truly disappears. This doesn’t mean that social media can’t be a wonderful tool. But its worth remembering when you use social media to convey sensitive information, or politically loaded content. And we collectively need to hold the giant social media companies (as well as as other corporations with data, including health records)  to account for lax security. And if you can bear it, just delete Facebook.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Shane Harris, @ War

An Opte Project visualization of routing paths through a portion of the Internet. (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5) via Wikimedia Commons.

With the constant media attention to the alleged Russian involvement in the last American election, there is perhaps more media attention to the issue of cyber-warfare than ever before. In this context, Shane Harris’ book, @ War: the Rise of the Military-Internet Complex is provides a sweeping overview of how the U.S. government and its corporate allies have sought to respond and use cyber tools for espionage and war.

Harris has a background as a journalist, and he has extensively interviewed people in both the U.S. federal government and industry. His work provides a deep understanding of how these actors view cyber-conflict. The book is particularly good at showing how corporations are intricately connected the armed forces in cyber-warfare: “Without the cooperation of the companies, the United States couldn’t fight cyber wars. In that respect, the new military-Internet complex is the same as the industrial one before it” (Harris, p. xxiii).

At the same time, this book views this issue through an American lens, and at times has an unreflective view of technology’s role in war. Ever since the Vietnam War, the United States has relied on technology to win wars, while not similarly prioritizing cultural, strategic and historical awareness. One can see this issue in the opening section of the book, which examines U.S. efforts to use cyber-espionage to target ISIS in Iraq, in what he describes as a triumph: “Indeed, cyber warfare -the combination of spying and attack- was instrumental to the American victory in Iraq in 2007, in ways that have never been fully explained or appreciated” (Harris, p. xxii). Even though his description of U.S. operations in Iraq is fascinating, this part of the work has not aged well, and confronts the reader with technology’s limitations more than its capabilities. …

Peace Treaties and Ancient China

Map of the Chinese plain, 5 century BC. Start of the Warring States Period. By Yug [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Although we think of arms control and peace treaties as relatively modern concepts, they have ancient roots. I’ve been reading Richard Louis Walker’s book, The Multi-State System of Ancient China, which was published by Shoe String press in 1953. He describes major negotiations that followed a period of devastating warfare during the Spring and Autumn period, as contending states struggled for primacy in China. Interestingly, his description of how the ancient states of China interacted would be all too familiar to a scholar in the modern Realist School. The idea of a Balance of power dominated Chinese politics in this distant time period in the same manner that it did in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the sixth century BC a Sung statesman named Hsiang Shu (p. 56) lobbied the courts of multiple Chinese states, to try to reach an agreement to end the perpetual warfare. Even states that had little interest in negotiations found that they had no choice but to at least pretend to take part:

“The states had, of course, at least to pretend an interest in his idea. A Chin leader said, “War is destructive to the people, an insect that eats up the resources of a State, and the greatest calamity of all small States. If any one try to put an end to it, though we think it cannot be done, we must sanction his proposal. If we do not, Ch’u will do so, and proceed to call the States together, so that we shall lose the presidency of the covenants.” (Walker, 56).

As Walker describes (56-57) fourteen major states took part of in the discussion. Predictably, once an agreement was reached there was a dispute between the two most powerful states over who should sign first (57). The negotiations had gone so poorly that during the meetings “the Ch’u representatives even wore armor.” (57). In the end, even though an agreement was reached to end warfare, many states refused to sign, while the signatories ignored it (57).

As for statesman and peace-maker Hsian Shu, he sought a reward from the Prime Minister of Sung, to whom he presented a signed copy of the treaty. The Prime Minister responded with scorn, in a speech that deserves to be as frequently remembered in International Relations studies as the Melian Dialogue recorded by the Greek historian Thucydides. According to the Prime Minister of Sung, war was an inevitable tool of statecraft. To seek to abandon these tools was a delusion. He told Hsian Shu that he was lucky to have escaped without punishment, but now he was coming to him looking for a reward. The Prime Minister cut the copy of the treaty to pieces and threw it away (58).

Without the signature of all major states the peace treaty had no power, and the bitter wars continued.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Mexico and Safety

Panoramica Bahia de Acapulco. By Microstar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Date rape drugs are a problem in many different nations. A recent article in USA Today, however, reveals systemic issues at Mexican resorts. Raquel Rutledge’s well-researched piece, “Mother’s nightmare at Mexico resort: ‘There is more to this deeper, darker story than we know,'” reveals the inability or unwillingness of Mexican authorities to investigate the use of date rape drugs at these resorts. On a personal note, about six months ago I heard a second hand account from one of my students, who described a case of a husband and wife, in which the wife was raped after they were both given a date-rape drug. I can’t know if this story is true, since I did not speak to one of the people who were drugged. But what was disturbing to me about this particularly story was that this case allegedly took place not in a resort, but rather in a restaurant in Mexico City. Again, this story was not first-hand, and I cannot attest to its veracity. Still, Rutledge’s piece suggests that travelers to Mexico should exercise caution, and that Mexican authorities should thoroughly investigate all such cases, which should include medical examinations for rape, and blood testing to identify the drugs used.

Curious to read more about drugs in Mexico? You can also read this post. I also recommend this Propublica piece “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico” by Ginger Thompson, which covers this topic in much greater depth than my initial blog post.

Shawn Smallman, 2018.

Bioterrorism and Cocaine

“A beautiful landscape of Mendoza City’s park seen from the height of the Gómez building.” By Itsmemarttin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mat Youkee has a fascinating article, “Who Killed the Nazi Scientist trying to Wipe out Cocaine,” on the online site Ozy. The piece tells the story of Heinz Brücher, who had served as a second lieutenant in the German military (S.S.) during World War Two. A biologist, Brücher had stolen a Ukrainian seed-bank on Heinrich Himmler’s orders. Later in the war, he disobeyed orders to destroy these seeds, and fled the Reich with them. As with other German military figures at the war’s end, he fled to Argentina, as part of an evacuation which has become a theme in popular culture from film to conspiracy theories. He did not stay in Argentina only, however, but also taught as a faculty member everywhere from Venezuela to Paraguay. Later in life, though, he wound up living in a farm house in Mendoza, Argentina, where he seems to have hatched an incredible plot: to destroy the coca plant that is the basis for the cocaine trade.

The coca plant has been used for thousands of years in the Andes. One can see ancient indigenous sculptures in which the cheek of one figure is extended, because the person is chewing coca. The leaf figures in ritual and religion, but is also a rich source of nutrition.Throughout Latin America coca tea is often used as an infusion because it is supposed to have medicinal properties. The leaf itself is vastly different from the processed drug known as cocaine. In 1898 a German chemist, Richard Martin Willstätter, created cocaine, which had become one of the most used drugs in the world. By the 1970s and 80s, cocaine was the basis for the cartels of Colombia. At the same time, there were allegations that the U.S. intelligence services were themselves involved in the cocaine trade in order to fund the guerrillas fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Death Squads in the Philippines

Given the plethora of foreign policies issues that the United States faces, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the drug war in the Philippines does not receive more attention in the U.S. media. Still, there has been some remarkable accounts, perhaps none of which has been as insightful as Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marchall’s, “Davao Boys: How a secretive police squad racked up kills in Duterte’s drug war.” This detailed piece of investigative journalism examines one particular police unit at the heat of the extra-judicial killings of drug traffickers. I’ve done my own work on military terror in Brazil, and know how difficult it is to obtain such information, even in historical cases. To document killings on this scale while the violence is taking place requires bravery, dedication and skill. Highly recommended.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Nukemap

Nagasaki Bomb. By Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nukemap is a website that allows you detonate a virtual atomic weapon over the city of your choice. You can select the size of the bomb either by kiloton, or by presets. I first chose the a nuclear weapon tested by North Korea in 2013, and tested it as a surface burst over my much-loved city of Portland. The results were horrific: an estimated 32,230 fatalities and 41,500 injuries. When I tested the same blast over Manhattan there were 103,000 fatalities and 213, 430 injuries. In each case the map generates a series of concentric circles that illustrated the impacts from radiation, fireball, air blast, thermal radiation, etc. The website also models the radiation plume, which trails far off into the distance on the map.

This website can take you to a very dark place. I made the mistake of modeling the largest bomb that the USSR ever tested, and what would happen if it detonated over Portland, Oregon. The largest circle was for the thermal radiation, and indicated the areas in which people would receive third degree burns. This circle stretched for 60 kilometers or 11,300 km2. One end of circle passed Yale, Washington in the north, while Silverton, Oregon was on the the south edge of the circle. For this particular example, there were 1,241,130 estimated fatalities, and 574,390 injuries. So people were much more likely to be killed than injured. When I then tested the same blast over New York City, the same blast caused 7,633,390 fatalities and 4,194,990 injuries. At that point I stopped using the site.

This website is both bleak and fascinating, and might be a useful tool during a classroom discussion of nuclear proliferation, and the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability. The day that I visited the website in November 2017 over 130 million detonations already had taken place on the site.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Smallpox and North Korea

A patient being inoculated against smallpox in 1802, in a satirical cartoon. James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Biological weapons are both terrifying and elusive. On the one hand, the Soviet Union made long-term investments in bioweapons research during the Cold War, as Ken Alibek’s tell-all book Biohazard makes clear. On the other hand, these diseases have proved difficult to weaponize, and the problem of blowback has made them unlikely to be used by any state. Despite the allegations that Iraq was weaponizing diseases under Saddam Hussein, no large-scale biological weapons program was discovered after the U.S. and British invasion. Now there are new allegations being made about North Korea.

Given that North Korea’s leader had his own brother murdered, and is moving forward rapidly to expand the range of his nuclear weapons, it’s not difficult to imagine that he might be fascinated with biological weaponry. But is there any solid evidence for a North Korean program? Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons development can take place on a constrained budget and without difficult procurement or testing issues. As such, these programs are hard to detect. Nonetheless, Joby Warrick has an article in the Washing Post that points out that in 2015 the North Korean leader had his photograph taken in a facility “jammed with expensive equipment, including industrial-scale fermenters used for growing bulk quantities of live microbes, and large dryers designed to turn billions of bacterial spores into a fine powder for easy dispersal.” Perhaps even more disturbing, North Korean soldiers who have defected have allegedly had antibodies to smallpox, although these defectors mostly escaped decades ago.

Warrick’s article is worth reading in depth. How do we judge such a threat? On the one hand, were a virus such as smallpox ever released it would be truly a global catastrophe. On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge no state has used biological weapons since World War Two. Since that time, however, many Cassandras have warned that enemies were developing biological weapons. The United States has a long history of allegations against enemies that lead to war, only to be discredited afterwards, The U.S. warship Maine was quite possibly sunk by a coal fire, not the Spanish, but its explosion was used to justify the Spanish-American war. It’s unlikely that any North Vietnamese forces were even present on August 4, 1964 for the alleged second Gulf of Tonkin incident. The first incident led to a single bullet hole in a U.S. vessel. Nonetheless, these “events” were manipulated to form the basis for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by the U.S. Congress. In turn, President Johnson then used Congress’s authorization to massively expand the U.S. war in Vietnam. As it turns out, the U.S. intelligence services had completely misread the situation in that nation. The Bush administration alleged that Saddam Hussein was creating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but none were found after the U.S.-British invasion. If we included smaller conflicts -such as the contra war, which was based on a myriad of allegations against Nicaragua in the 1980s- this list of false or questionable justifications for war would become lengthy. Given this background, how seriously should we fear this new potential threat?

Sadly, biological weapons programs are by their nature easy to conceal, and difficult to evaluate. As a result, this is one potential nightmare associated with North Korea that is profoundly difficult to place in a broader context. We simply don’t have sufficient information yet to know the true scale of the danger.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

The secret deal in Raqqa

Destroyed neighborhood in Raqqa. By Mahmoud Bali (VOA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
By the summer of 2017, the city of Raqqa in eastern Syria was the last remaining stronghold of ISIL in the Middle East. The U.S. backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) launched a major attack on the city beginning in June. On October 17, 2017, these forces announced the fall of the city and the utter defeat of ISIL. The BBC, however, had reporters on the ground, who reported a shocking twist to the story of the city’s fall. Members of the attacking forces had cut a deal to allow hundreds -perhaps thousands- of fighters to escape from the city. In a video titled, “Fall of Raqqa: The secret deal,” the BBC reporters traced the convoy’s path as far as Turkey, where they interviewed smugglers who took ISIL members across the border. Amongst the people who escaped were many foreign fighters, who threaten their own country’s security when they return. France, in particular, seems to be a target. …

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