Pluralistic: 02 Jul 2020

Today's links

A grifter's border wall is about to fall into the Rio Grande (permalink)

Headlines are hard, but every now and again, someone just nails it, like whoever wrote this Propublica hed: "He Built a Privately Funded Border Wall. It’s Already at Risk of Falling Down if Not Fixed," over a story by Jeremy Schwartz and Perla Trevizo.

That hed captures so much about the story, but read it all anyway, so you can learn how Tommy Fisher, a trumpy grifter, conned the USG out of billions to build border walls by going on Fox News to talk up his incredible, red-tape-cutting prowess.

Fisher's showroom is "the Lamborghini of walls" (now there's an American comparison!) that he privately built on the banks of the Rio Grande, which won him $1.7B+ in federal wall-building contracts in Arizona.

But Fisher somehow didn't realize that the Rio Grande was a, uh, BIG river, and that it would quickly erode the footings of his Italian sportscar of a wall, putting it at risk of being swept into the Gulf of Mexico (hey, there's some irony for ya!).

Now, say what you will about the US government, it was able to tell that Fisher was a dangerous grifter from the get-go. Fisher was rejected by the DHS and Army Corps of Engineers, but he had a canny strategy.

By repeatedly going on Fox News and talking up his skills, he convinced Trump himself to get him put on the list of qualified bidders.

It was Fisher's imperilled wall that won him Trump's approval, because, apart from the fact that it is about to be washed away to sea, it was perfect in every respect.

It was funded by donations from "We Build the Wall," a money-sink for gullible xenophobes overseen by Tom Tancredo, David Clarke, Kris Kobach and Steve Bannon.

Its founder, Brian Kolfage, talked up how it could be built better and cheaper than anything a USG egghead would design: "The best engineers in the world designed this for floods, not government employees." That's some powerful Lyle Lanley Monorail vibe right there.

Anyway, now it's going to be washed away. Perhaps it will form a useful artificial reef? Or maybe it will lodge across the river and provide a handy footbridge for asylum seekers?

(Image: framegrabs from Fisher Industry promo video

Hong Kong law threatens people all over the world (permalink)

A year ago, it seemed the whole world was glued to the incredible protests out of Hong Kong, which were a masterclass in both street- and cyber-countermeasures, as Hong Kong people bootstrapped a protest over a bad law into a popular independence movement.

But Beijing outwaited the protesters. The new "National Security Law" goes far further than the extradition law that kicked off last year's #612strike, and it passed on Jun 30.

Incredibly, the text of the law was kept secret from the public and Hong Kong's lawmakers (including Chief Exec Carrie Lam) until moments before its passage.

The law imposes life sentences for four nebulously defined offenses ("secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and collusion with foreign entities"), and provides for secret, jury-less trials that needn't be held in Hong Kong.

The law also mandates "national security education" in Hong Kong schools, with Beijing-designed curriculum, finally implementing an unpopular 2012 law that was defeated after public opposition.

It also implements 2016's failed proposal to require HK lawmakers to swear loyalty oaths to Beijing. It prohibits the mainstream opposition movements in HK.

The law permits Chinese forces to kidnap anyone, anywhere – whether or not they are from or reside in HK or are Chinese or HK nationals – to face punishment.

You may remember that in 2018, Chinese authorities kidnapped dissident booksellers and brought them to the mainland so that their coerced apologies for their opposition to the Xi regime could be broadcast around the world.

Arrests under the new law have already begun, including a 15-year-old girl arrested for waving a pro-independence flag at a demonstration.

1000+ accidental trigger-phrases for smart speakers (permalink)

In "Unacceptable, where is my privacy?" – a forthcoming computer science paper – a group of researchers from Ruhr University Bochum and the Max Planck Institute for Security and Privacy identify 1000+ keywords that can erroneously wake smart speakers.

When that happens the speakers begin to capture sound from around them and transmit it to the corporations that manufactured them, who both retain the accidental audio and periodically transmit it to subcontractors who review and transcribe the audio.

Many accidental wake-words are commonly spoken in radio, TV and podcasts, and are a part of typical conversations, meaning that anyone who owns a smart speaker is likely frequently uninentionally triggering it.

For example, saying the world "Election" can wake your Alexa.

While the companies' practices (retaining and retransmitting captured speech) make this worse, it's bad on its own, and the best fix for it is to not own any of these devices, period.


CC BY (modified):

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

Roller derby's brilliant re-opening plan (permalink)

Sport leagues all over the world are wrestling (!) with how and when to reopen. Mostly they're doing a terrible job, with one amazing, shining exception: roller-derby.

The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association's guidelines, developed by a group of athlete-experts, are amazing.

As Christie Aschwanden writes in Wired, the plan has won praise from epidemiologists for "its specific and data-based benchmarks, for its grounding in science and 'basic infection-control principles.'"

Its obvious superiority has attracted attention from all sorts of sports leagues, all over the world.

Most importantly is its relationship to local infection conditions, using local public health guidelines as benchmarks for seven stages of re-opening for Derby.

Tier 1 ("limited group practices…with no physical contact between players") is permissible when health authorities lift "stay-at-home orders or proximity restrictions," permit "public congregations of at least 50 people" where "public transportation is fully functional."

Beyond that, Tier 1 can only occur when there have been fewer than 5 positive cases per 10,000 people for at least 14 days.

Each tier steps through its own benchmarks, but even more importantly, new conditions automatically trigger reversion to stricter tiers.

Included in the guidelines are rules for when and how audiences can return to matches, praised by Emory University epidemiologist Zachary Binney: "It’s so nice to see a clear, unambiguously right take."

While the guidelines are highly specific and thoughtful, the principles that guide them are admirably succinct: "See what’s happening, take small steps, step off whenever something is concerning." – Biostatistician Mikaela Kosich (derby name: Bubble Wrath).

Unauthorized seat (permalink)

In my novella Unauthorized Bread, I explore how "smart" devices can be turned into rent-extraction services, enabling firms to convert the property we own into systems that we license, with the terms renegotiable at any moment.

Under these conditions, companies can realize the age-old monopolist's dream of controlling their risk by unilaterally imposing restraints on their competitors, customers and critics.

And since laws like Section 1201 of the DMCA ban tampering with these enforcement systems, firms can literally make it a crime to displease their shareholders – it's "Felony Contempt of Business-Model."

For example, a company can define some of the value you get out of your property (like using ink of your own choosing in your printer) as a "feature" and charge anything they want for it. They can also cancel that feature if they decide it's not good for them anymore.

And since laws (like copyright and patent) prohibit third parties from making interoperable products that can restore the feature – a mod-chip, a third-party ink cartridge, a plug-in – companies get to decide who can compete with them and how.

Say you make a mobile phone and you want your customers to throw away their devices and buy new ones every two years: you can design the phone so that repairing it requires bypassing a copyright lock.

That makes it a crime for anyone except you to fix that phone, and you can decline to fix phones that are more than two years old. Anyone who attempts a competing, unauthorized repair breaks the law.

But remember, this Felony Contempt of Business Model isn't just a license to dictate how your competitors and customers must act – it also allows you to muzzle your critics.

Digital systems contain subtle and potentially lethal security defects. The most reliable way for these defects to be discovered and repaired is for independent third parties to conduct unauthorized, unconstrained audits of products we trust with our data and even our lives.

In particular, companies should never – for obvious reasons – get a say in who can tell the public about defects in their products or how they can say it. Companies are not neutral custodians of true disclosures regarding expensive mistakes they made.

When companies uses digital locks to restrict access to code in their devices, they can use these laws to punish people both for researching their products and for disclosing what they find.

EFF is suing the US government to end this.

When corporations have the right to control their critics, customers and competitors, we have no hope for technological self-determination – the right to decide which technology we use and how we use it.

So of course, corporations love this. It's a way to make money by bullying your customers, rather than by wooing them with your amazing products.

Oh hai, BMW.

BMW is reinventing their cars as a "platform" – that is, a device where they (and they alone) can arbitrarily add or remove features at any price they choose, subject only to terms of service whose only option is "I agree" or "I no longer have a car."

Which over-the-air "options" will BMWs have? "Everything from advanced safety systems like adaptive cruise and automatic high-beams to other, more discrete options like heated seats."

"Imagine pressing the seat heater button only to be prompted to renew your subscription, or having to pay extra to get an engine note on your new M4 that suits your sensibilities. All this is possible — and likely. And, frankly, ugly." -Tim Stevens, Cnet

Stevens is right, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Implicit in car-as-platform is car-as-monopoly-platform, car-as-company-store. This only works if BMW's competitors are prohibited from simply unlocking this functionality.

That is, it only works if BMW – and not you – get to decide which software runs in your car. This may sound like a safety feature but having the power to load and unload the code in every BMW guarantees that governments will order BMW to do so when it suits their needs.

This is the lesson Apple learned when it made a phone that Apple – and Apple alone – could approve software for. The murderous Chinese government showed up and said, "Remove any software that makes it impossible to spy on our people."

If you can do it, someone might make you do it.


CC BY (modified):

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

Don't Believe Proven Liars (permalink)

One of the commonest ways for competitive market economies to turn into monopolies is when companies are allowed to merge with major competitors or acquire new companies that might grow to threaten them.

This leads to "moneyball" markets where companies grow because they have money, not because they make things we love.

In the pre-Reagan era, it was routine for the DoJ to block mergers on this basis but in the decades since, the DoJ has moved to a posture of permitting even the most indefensible mergers to monopoly.

The DoJ's position is that all it needs to do to keep monopolists from abusing their power is to tie merger permission to good conduct promises – like Facebook's promise that it would not combine Instagram and Whatsapp data with its other sources.

This is a poor substitute for simply blocking monopolies.

Which is bad enough, but it gets worse.

Companies routinely lie about what they will and won't do after a merger.

Which is bad enough, but it gets worse.

Even after a company has lied in order to get a merger past the DoJ, the same companies are allowed to tell the same lies when they're attempting their next merger.

And their next.

And their next.

As GW Bush said, "Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

In a new post for EFF Deeplinks, I propose the absolute minimum standard of prudence in merger scrutiny:

"If a company breaks a promise, and then it makes the same promise when seeking approval for a merger, we should not believe it."

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Riepl's Law: how future media compost the past's_law

#10yrsago Canadian copyright astroturfers own up: front for US labels

#5yrsago Fracketeering: Life in a capitalist sci-fi horror story

#5yrsago Judge hires lawyer to threaten court over jury summons

#5yrsago How the NSA searches the world's intercepted private communications

#5yrsago Brown fat therapy reverses Type I diabetes in mouse trial

#1yrago Why is the American Medical Association finally weighing to oppose anti-abortion bills

#1yrago Chinese authorities are secretly installing their anti-Uyghur surveillance app on the phones of tourists to Xinjiang province

#1yrago Trump defeated: 2020 Census will not contain citizenship question

#1yrago "Just don't have a face": what it's like to opt-out of US airports' "optional" face recognition

#1yrago Using machine learning to pull Krazy Kat comics out of giant public domain newspaper archives

#1yrago Mysterious New Orleans "anti-crime" camera emblazoned with NOPD logos outside surveillance contractor's house is disavowed by NOPD

#1yrago Podcast: Fake News is an Oracle

#1yrago How Boris Johnson's "model bus hobby" non sequitur manipulated the public discourse and his search results

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (

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One thought on “Pluralistic: 02 Jul 2020”

  1. "nebulously defined offenses ("secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and collusion with foreign entities")"

    Is that more nebulous than "Conspiracy against the USA"?

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