Pluralistic: 16 Jun 2020

Today's links

The technology of Uyghur oppression (permalink)

The Center for Global Policy is an "independent, non-partisan American think tank working exclusively on issues at the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and Muslim geopolitics."

It's just published a major report by Darren Byler on the tech of the war on Uyghurs and Kazakhs in China's Xinjiang province; a devastating high-tech panopticon whose most visible element are concentration camps where 1M+ people were imprisoned.

But the whole story isn't the walled prisons: it's the entire region, which has been turned into an open air prison where technology tracks and controls predominantly Muslim Turkic people while allowing Han people to go about their business largely unhindered.

This has been so effective that "within a single generation Muslim embodied practice and Turkic languages in Northwest China will cease to provide essential ways for Uighurs and Kazakhs to sustain their knowledge systems."

The people who are "free" – that is, not interred in a concentration camp – were nevertheless forced to provide blood, DNA, fingerprint, iris and facial biometrics to the security apparatus. The penalty for noncompliance was imprisonment.

Authorities set up a dense network of biometric scanning points throughout the region, points that Han people were typically waved through, while Turkic people had to stop and be scanned – more than 10 times/day.

And while Xinjiang is its own unique horror, it has its roots in the US post-911 counterinsurgency theory (COIN), pioneered by US Army General Petraeus, and in the EU's "Countering Violent Extremism" (CVE) programs.

These were the theoretical bases used as starting points by the Chinese architects of the Xinjiang project: it's "COIN and CVE with Chinese characteristic." Its motto: "teach like a school, be managed like the military, and be defended like a prison."

China's technologists and private contractors laud their advantages over US counterparts, though, because "they have a space to experiment with these technologies without fear of legal or civil resistance, or without shareholders holding them responsible for failed systems."

Technically, the companies supplying tools of oppression banned in America, but it's not enforced. Not only are their consumer products for sale in the US, but universities like MIT take funding from them, and commercial and academic scientists collaborate with them.

Megvii created the vision systems used in the concentration camps: "The director of research at Megvii USA has published articles with current researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Stanford, Duke, Georgia Tech, Brown, and Rutgers."

"He has also co-published with researchers at Facebook, Google, and Adobe, among others. In nearly all cases, the leaders of these sanctioned companies are deeply embedded in the U.S. research community and tech industry."

Though the Chinese state denies human rights abuses in and out of the camps in Xinjiang, we have leaked primary sources that tell the tale.

Here's leaks detailing the plan for mass arrests and internments.

Another round of leaks details the "No Mercy" plan for brutalizing Turkic minorities:

And here's a reverse engineering teardown of the app that Uyghurs and other Turkic people are forced to install on their phones:

Byler ends his report with a set of US policy recommendations for ending complicity with the program and putting pressure on the Chinese state and Chinese companies to end the human rights abuses in the region.

  1. Enforce existing sanctions and end the sales and operations by companies that collaborate with the Chinese state in Xinjiang.

  2. Apply "Magnitsky" sanctions against the leaders of the forced-labor program and conduct a full investigation into the use of unfree labor in products ranging from electronics to textiles.

  3. Pass a bill "to identify and extend sanctions on all companies and state entities involved in the forced labor system."

  4. Extend sanctions beyond the 17 companies currently listed to the 1,400+ tech firms "involved in the re-education system and hundreds of manufacturing companies."

  5. US and other western countries should "ban the collection and use of 'passive' or involuntary biometric information and data surveillance," establishing a global norm of biometric privacy.

Transparency without recourse (permalink)

This week, Both/And is hosting an online Transparency and Design Summit:

I'm giving a keynote tomorrow at 9AM Pacific/6PM Berlin, called "Adversarial Interoperability: An Elegant Weapon From a More Civilized Age."

Here's the precis:

It's fine to demand that firms make their products legible to the people who use them, but that's just table-stakes. Transparency without recourse is a recipe for nihilism: 'Yeah, this is what we're doing, and if you don't like it, you can go to hell.'

Adversarial Interoperability is that recourse: the right of the public – and tinkerers, co-ops, startups and other rivals – to modify a product to suit their own needs. Not only does this allow users to make a counteroffer to push back on a company's design choices, it also allows us to independently verify that the claims made about how the product works.

And by raising the likelihood that promise-breaking will be publicized, Adversarial Interoperability changes the boardroom discussion within the companies that make these products.

It's a lot harder to sell your colleagues on cheating if they know they'll get caught.

The livestream will be here:
I hope you can make it!

How covid spreads (permalink)

The Financial Times has an outstanding article by Michael Peel and John Burn-Murdoch summarizing the best scientific evidence on how coronavirus spreads, aimed at educating the public on how to avoid risk as cities and countries re-open:

I found the conclusions fascinating and surprising, so much so that I was actually a little dubious until I saw that "physician-scientist" Eric Topol from Scripps had tweeted the charts summarizing them.

First, a chart suggesting that you are MUCH safer in outdoor situations than indoors.

Next, a chart highlighting the clear relationship between duration and intensity of contact with the likelihood of spreading.

There were early fears that centralized HVAC could spread coronavirus. In at least one apartment building, experts believe covid spread via a kitchen extractor fan.

Nevertheless, this chart shows that good air circulation is a powerful preventative.

Finally, a chart on the role of "superspreaders" suggesting that most (!) positive cases won't spread the disease, while a small minority will spread it widely.

This last one is the most fascinating and challenging, and since it's based on observation rather than experiment, and since there's no agreed-upon causal basis for this, it's hard to know what's going on here.

Is a superspreader someone who's unlucky enough to be shedding especially potent virus particles? Or are they unlucky enough to come into contact with especially vulnerable people (or people who just had very bad luck themselves?).

Why SCOTUS upheld LGBTQ rights (permalink)

Yesterday's Supreme Court ruling that the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was both welcome and surprising news. Welcome for obvious reasons, but surprising because two conservative judges sided with the majority.

But as John Quiggin writes on Crooked Timber, there was good reason to predict that the judges would not blindly follow their ideology and instead would look to issues of fundamental justice in their deliberations.

Quiggin describes the Supremes' power as "a veto point, able to block legislation that can be represented as violating constitutional protection" – while "the progressive agenda is clearly within the power of the legislature and executive."

If the judges had neutered the Civil Rights Act yesterday, it would have exacted a "huge political cost on the Republican majority," teeing up future legislation (after Dems win the Presidency and Congress) that massively expanded the Civil Rights Act.

Such a decision would also trigger state legislation that expanded protections against discrimination.

Meanwhile, the discrediting of SCOTUS from such a decision would hasten the day in which Citizens United, the ruling that allows the GOP to buy elections, was obliterated.

Siding with the majority allowed Gorsuch to counter the idea that "'textualism' means "rightwing interpretations of the text'" and defend Gorsuch from claims of being an illegitimate partisan hack in a stolen seat.

Quiggin predicts that "hard neoliberals to welcome the fact that this unwinnable fight is over" while "culture warriors who back Trump will be furious."

Hackers on Planet Earth (permalink)

For decades, 2600 Magazine has hosted its biennial hacker con, Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) in NYC, with keynotes from the likes of Jello Biafra, Edward Snowden, Steve Wozniak, Chelsea Manning and (w00t!) me, back in 2016.

This was almost the year without a HOPE. First, the Hotel Pennsylvania kicked them out of their venue. Then, coronavirus meant that all the bookstores that had the latest ish of the magazine closed and 2600's distributor wasn't going to pay them.

But they've rallied: the con will happen this year, as a nine-day, online event with workshops, lectures, late-night DJ sets — all the stuff you'd expect from a HOPE con.

They've just announced this year's keynoters and I'm delighted to reveal that I will be among them! I'm in good company, with EFF executive director Cindy Cohn, tech commentator Richard Thieme, and VR pioneer/musician Jaron Lanier.

Talking Radicalized with Podside Picnic (permalink)

I was delighted to sit for a long interview with the excellent sf/f podcast Podside Picnic, in which we ranged over the pandemic, politics in sf, my early days in Toronto's sf scene, the craft of writing, economics, and more!

It was indeed a wide-ranging discussion, and really managed to illuminate my interests in politics, art, and technology in a way that I rarely get to do. Here's the MP3:

Giant worry-stone (permalink)

For years, the sculptor/machinist Chris Bathgate has turned his prodigious talent to small worry-stones, fidget-toys, starting with "The Slider" (I own one of these!).

Then he collaborated on a gorgeous spinning top, the lyrically named, "TP533351444623."

Then the S2 slider toy:

He collaborated on a fidget-spinner in the heyday of the spinner craze:

Clearly, his machined take on a netsuke is not intended to be carried in your pocket, but it IS definitely something you want to hold and play with.

Shortly after the netsuke, we got a piece that is even more playful, the Ratchet.

His final slider toy shows how ideas evolve through iteration.

And while it's not part of the slider series, I think there's a clear line from the sliders to the switchblade-inspired Out the Front sculpture.

Back in April, Bathgate unveiled his first wood/metal mixed-media sculpture, his worry beads.

But life has only gotten more worrying since April, and so he's shipped a new, jumbo worry bead, at least an order of magnitude larger than the first (you're not carrying this in your pocket!).

Bathgate writes, "The current plan is to make eight or nine of these larger format sculptures. Each one will be unique with a carefully chosen color pallet and species of wood."

"It always felt a shame to be cutting these large beautiful blocks down into smaller pieces; their figure and details were just so much more complex and striking in a larger format. I just had to make a bigger one to use more of each block."

Bathgate wrote an excellent, lavishly illustrated book about his process in 2012. I highly recommend it.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Mark Cuban: Why Macrovision's customers are fools

#15yrsago Stolen Trotsky-slaying icepick for sale to Trotsky's descendants

#15yrsago What UK's copyright industries are up to

#10yrsago Teacher cuts student's picture out of every copy of the yearbook

#10yrsago HP to spam your web-connected printer

#10yrsago Sweet Tooth: gripping, post-apocalyptic graphic novel off to a killer start

#10yrsago US record labels starts fake "citizen's group" to support Canada's DMCA

#10yrsago Jon Stewart on Obama's broken civil liberties promises

#5yrsago Library at Mount Char: urban fantasy that has the magic

#1yrago After Hong Kong's leaders delay plan to render dissidents to mainland China, 2,000,000 Hong Kongers march and demand resignations

#1yrago The UK government gave away cheap money for property purchase deposits, which the wealthy abused, driving up property prices and leaving UK taxpayers exposed

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 578 words (27560 total).

  • A short story, "Making Hay," for MIT Tech Review. Yesterday's progress: 307 words (964 total)

Currently reading: Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, Daniel Pinkwater

Latest podcast: Part 6 of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town"

Upcoming appearances:

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here: Get a personalized, signed copy here:

"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden:; personalized/signed copies here:

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2 thoughts on “Pluralistic: 16 Jun 2020”

  1. "The technology of Uyghur oppression"

    That was all invented in occupied Palestine (and sold to US police forces).

  2. Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge & vision today at 'Transparency by Design' conference. And for you answers to my questions about GAFAM (how-to-govern these "National champions") and re. Tim Berners-Lee's TheWeb (Signal for future).

    My startup's idea (using Self-Sovereign ID, Disposable Identities) is to leverage PUBLIC TRUST to some mass PHYSICAL products for SEAMLESS & secure access to human-centric services / unique user profile (MyData) & context-adjusted best digital practices, i.e. not to JohnDeer-like services. The MyData Label (, Finland int'l non-profit for personal data usage best practices) at PUBLIC library (PL) books could connect people without data literacy, in1gesture: by simply opening #IndiviDUALbook's cover / OpenEuropeBook / oeBook.

    This is like "ant's best-practice-leg's" 😉 small movements in the right direction, I hope:

    Could my vision to human-centric digitalization via 'always-offline PL books / LuxuryToBeOffline' be viable?

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