Pluralistic: 09 Feb 2021


Today's links



Snowden's young adult memoir (permalink)

"Permanent Record," Edward Snowden's 2019 memoir, was just what I'd hoped for: a record of a personal journey, recounted in service to a thoughtful, nuanced argument for civil disobedience and acts of conscience.

https://memex.craphound.com/2019/09/24/permanent-record-edward-snowden-and-the-making-of-a-whistleblower/

Whistleblowers are often complicated figures. Often, a whistleblower acts out of mixed motivations – personal grievance, trauma, anger. Sometimes they're incoherent and struggle to frame their deeds.

Not Snowden.

As Permanent Record makes clear, he acted out of principle, after lengthy soul-searching, because he believed in his country and was both elated at the liberatory power of tech and terrified by its power to oppress.

On top of that, Permanent Record is a beautifully written, gripping technothriller, a procedural that explains the nuts and bolts of encryption, operational security, both fascinating and revelatory, a guide to what you should be worried about, and what you can do about it.

But Permanent Record keeps getting better! Today, Henry Holt released "Permanent Record: Young Readers Edition," which is exactly what it sounds like, a young adult version of Snowden's memoir, laying out his life's story and his principles for teens.

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250767929/

Speaking as someone who grew up on the kind of Heinlein "juvie" that read like a super cool older brother who put his arm around your shoulder and said, "Look, kid, I'm going to tell you how the world works" —

Speaking as a writer who tried to capture that same spirit with my own book Little Brother – a book whose working title was "Wikipedia Brown," and which I pitched as "Howard Zinn meets Have Spacesuit Will Travel" —

Speaking as the father of an adolescent —

This is an amazing book.

Snowden's sprightly prose, his deep technical knowledge, his superb knack for explaining complex matters, his ability to articulate principled action all come together in a book that is, if anything, better than the adult version.

Books for teens cast a long shadow. They can alter the course of a person's life. I was permanently affected by the books I read as an adolescent. Snowden isn't just simplifying his message for kids here.

He's engaging with a generation of people who will never know a life without the internet, but who might someday know a life free from ubiquitous surveillance.

Tonight at 7PM Pacific I'm helping Snowden launch the book in a livestreamed event in collaboration with Copperfield Books:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/edward-snowden-in-conversation-with-cory-doctorow-tickets-136734968973



Favicons as undeletable tracking beacons (permalink)

When you think of online tracking, chances are you think about third-party cookies that follow you from site to site. Third-party cookie handling has been a hot-button issue among the major browser vendors of late, with Google announcing that Chrome would deprecate them.

But third-party cookies are just the most obvious way that your online activity gets tracked. Far more insidious is "browser fingerprinting," in which the unique characteristics of your browser and computer are linked to your identity and tracked.

Browser fingerprinting and other de-anonymizing attacks are a reminder that the technical problems of anonymity are subtle and complex, which is generally true of all privacy questions.

It's also a reminder that privacy problems can't be solved with code alone: to be private, you also need legal recourse against companies that cheat and spy on you.

Finally, it's a reminder that we need independent security researchers, who can warn us about novel ways of attacking our digital privacy.

Researchers like Jonas Strehle, who just published a fascinating proof-of-concept demonstrating how favicons (the tiny icons in your browser tabs) represent a serious privacy vulnerability.

https://github.com/jonasstrehle/supercookie

Strehle calls this tracking-by-favicon "supercookies," and his demo shows that these trackers defeat incognito mode, VPNs, and ad-blockers.

https://www.vice.com/en/article/n7v5y7/browser-favicons-can-be-used-as-undeletable-supercookies-to-track-you-online

His work builds on an academic U Illinois Chicago paper from Network and Distributed Systems Security, published in 2020: "Tales of FAVICONS and Caches:Persistent Tracking in Modern Browsers"

https://www.cs.uic.edu/~polakis/papers/solomos-ndss21.pdf

Favicons are stored locally in a database called the F-cache; if a user requests a favicon from a site, the site can infer that the user has never visited the site before (or that the gap since their last visit was so long that the cache expired).

"By combining the state of delivered and not delivered favicons for specific URL paths for a browser, a unique pattern (identification number) can be assigned to the client. When the website is reloaded, the web server can reconstruct the identification number with the network requests sent by the client for the missing favicons and thus identify the browser."

This confirms the original paper's theoretical prediction that favicon attacks "allow a website to reconstruct a 32-bit tracking identifier in 2 seconds."

(Image: Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC)



The ECB should forgive the debt it owes itself (permalink)

For people and businesses, money is scarce; for currency-issuing governments, it's not. The story that governments "spend our taxes" is obviously wrong: since governments are the source of money, it can't be right that governments have to get money from us before they spend.

Governments spend first, spending money into existence. Then they tax, which annihilates some of that money. If governments run "balanced budgets" (where they tax as much as they spend), they leave no money left over for us to use.

And if they run a surplus (taxing more than they spend), then they reduce the supply of money that's available for the private sector to spend. The government's deficit is the public's credit, and vice-versa.

Government spending is constrained…but not by money. It's constrained by resources. If the government creates money to buy more things than are for sale – or things that the private sector's also trying to buy – prices go up (AKA inflation).

There's a lot of important stuff for sale in any given government's currency that no one else is trying to buy, though: for example, the labor of unemployed people. Governments can safely create money to buy that labor at a socially inclusive wage with good benefits.

Sometimes, governments need to buy things the private sector also wants. During WWII, states needed raw material, processing facilities, and labor for the war.

To prevent inflation, they did two things: first, they rationed, limiting what the private sector could buy.

Second, they created "war bonds," which were basically sinkholes for money. By urging workers to sequester the money they earned in war production, governments were able to take the money out of circulation during the period when there was nothing to buy with it.

Governments that recognize this undeniable truth – money is spent into existence, taxed out of existence – are able to weather crises, for example, by spending whatever it takes to get through a pandemic, or to recover from a crash.

Governments that allow themselves to be constrained by the fiction of "spending tax money" are hobbled during crises – locked into austerity at the moment when the economy contracts, drawing down the pool of spendable money when spending is desperately needed.

And even if a government is free from the ideological straitjacket of scarce money, it can still be hampered by external factors. For example, if a government owes debts in a currency it doesn't issue, then it can't spend its way out of debt.

Venezuela and Zimbabwe could create VEBs and ZWDs all day and it wouldn't give them the dollars they needed to service their debts – and since they'd oriented their economies towards import rather than self-reliance, there wasn't much they could buy in VEBs and ZWDs either.

It's not just debt: governments can cede their monetary sovereignty by pegging their currency to some other currency (like the USD), or by allowing a third party to issue their currency (like the eurozone nations).

The eurozone is a remarkable phenomenon: a union of 19 affluent countries that have abandoned control of their money and thus their ability to fund things like a job guarantee, putting themselves at the mercy of the European Central Bank during economic crises.

During the 2008 crisis, the ECB put the screws to the eurozone, punishing austerity and a wildly uneven recovery with riches for the financial sector (who were able to charge interest on loans that replaced state spending) and destruction for the real economy and the 99%.

It's grimly ironic. The ECB – which is largely controlled by German politicians – is repeating the mistakes of the German central bank in the runup to WWII. You've probably heard the stories of Weimar hyperinflation, but that's not what triggered the German depression.

Rather, it was Brüning's 1930 policy of deflation – removing money from the economy through austerity – that triggered and then worsened the economic crisis in Germany, creating the conditions for societal collapse, fascism, and imperialist aggression.

Well, there's another economic crisis in the offing – the pandemic – and yet another, far worse one on the horizon – the climate emergency. And even with the constraints the ECB and eurozone nations have imposed on themselves, there is still room to get it right this time.

An all-star coalition of European academics and economists from every eurozone nation have signed onto a letter to the ECB, calling on it to forgive the debt the eurozone nations owe to it.

http://www.defenddemocracy.press/cancel-the-public-debt-held-by-the-ecb-and-take-back-control-of-our-destiny/

Like many central banks, the ECB chooses to issue debt whenever it creates new money (it doesn't have to do this, but it does). Much of that debt is bought up by investors seeking safe returns (for the same reason US pension plans buy T-bills and UK ones buy gilts).

But about 25% of that debt is held by the ECB itself – it's an accounting entry, in other words, not an actual debt. The ECB created 2.5 trillion euros, then decided that it owed 2.5 trillion euros to itself, for accounting purposes.

The ECB could simply wipe those debts off its books – or, if it wants to preserve the accounting convention, it could convert it into a perpetual debt at 0% interest.

Doing so would create the fiscal space for the entire EU-wide covid stimulus, with money left over to start on a Green European Deal.

The German interwar experience tells us what happens when we pursue austerity rather than writing off debt.

But it also tells us what happens when we get it right: in 1953, the London Conference wiped out two-thirds of Germany's public debt, paving the way for Germany reconstruction and rise.

Now, German politicians have the power to repeat the mistakes of 1930, or the good policies of 1953. And this time, the stakes aren't merely a world war – they're the world itself.



Fleet Street calls out schtum Tories (permalink)

If you think hyperpartisan media is unique to the internet age and yearn for the balance and sobriety of the golden age of newspapers, you have an unduly rosy picture of both the past and the present, as the British press ably demonstrates.

Maybe you've noticed the odd North American paper with titles that reveal their partisan history, like the Whig Standard and the Press Democrat, or you've heard of old-timey papers like the National Republican. You might think of the WSJ as Republican and the NYT as Dem.

But in the UK, there's never really been the pretense of independence from political parties. The Daily Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Times are Tory; the Guardian, Observer and Mirror are Labour. The Independent is called that because it's notionally independent.

The papers are partisan and so are their editors and writers, who generally hate one another and pick at each other in columns like Hamilton and Burr going at it in the op-ed section.

So when the British papers all co-sign a statement, it's worth taking notice.

A new petition from Opendemocracy calls on the Tory government to end its stonewalling on freedom of information requests, and it's been signed by more than a dozen current and former newspaper editors.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/fleet-street-editors-demand-urgent-action-to-protect-freedom-of-information/

As Mary Fitzgerald and Peter Geoghegan write, the government's "Clearing House" unit has been repeatedly caught lying about how it handles FOI requests, creating blacklists to deny access to journalists.

Under the Tories, FOI response rates have plunged to their lowest level in 40 years, with the Clearing House repeatedly implicated in conspiracies to bury information of enormous public import, such as documents relating to the infected blood scandal:

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/revealed-governments-orwellian-unit-blocked-infected-blood-scandal-disclosure/

Last month, leaks revealed that Clearing House was advising local councils to illegally withhold information on which buildings were sheathed in the lethal "Grenfell cladding" that resulted in the deaths of at least 72 people.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/uk-government-accused-covering-national-scandal-over-grenfell-style-cladding/

The petition has been signed by peers and MPs, "human rights lawyers, journalists, press freedom advocates and global non-governmental organisations including Index on Censorship, RSF, Greenpeace, Article 19, PEN and Transparency International."

The Tory government has presided over a series of lethal shambles that nevertheless piled enormous amounts of public funding into cronies' pockets for government services in no-bid and secret contracts, transforming the UK into a chumocracy.

The gutting of FOI service was overseen by archvillain Michael Gove. He's not hiding how the government works from its people because he thinks they'll love what he's doing and doesn't want to spoil the surprise.



This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Canadian Red Cross wastes its money harassing video game makers https://web.archive.org/web/20060221020835/http://www.igniq.com/2006/02/canadian-red-cross-wants-its-logo-out.html

#15yrsago Our music preferences are driven by the crowd as much as taste https://www.livescience.com/7016-science-hit-songs.html

#15yrsago Disneyland model recreates Yippie invasion of 1970 https://web.archive.org/web/20070612051115/http://dannysland.blogspot.com/2005/12/great-moments-in-disneyland-history.html

#10yrsago BBC to delete 172 unarchived sites, geek saves them for $3.99 https://web.archive.org/web/20110210151932/http://178.63.252.42/

#5yrsago A digital, 3D printed sundial whose precise holes cast a shadow displaying the current time http://www.mojoptix.com/fr/2015/10/12/ep-001-cadran-solaire-numerique/

#5yrsago Eviction epidemic: the racialized, weaponized homes of America’s cities https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/08/forced-out

#5yrsago Copyright trolls who claimed to own “Happy Birthday” will pay $14M to their “customers” https://consumerist.com/2016/02/09/happy-birthday-song-settlement-to-pay-out-14-million-to-people-who-paid-to-use-song/

#5yrsago Australia, the driest country on Earth, eliminates basic climate science research https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/australia-cuts-110-climate-scientist-jobs/

#5yrsago Vtech, having leaked 6.3m kids’ data, has a new EULA disclaiming responsibility for the next leak https://www.vice.com/en/article/bmvnjz/hacked-toy-company-vtech-tos-now-says-its-not-liable-for-hacks

#5yrsago Jughead is asexual https://www.themarysue.com/jughead-asexuality/



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/).

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 508 words (108255 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Friday's progress: 289 words (4029 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 30) https://craphound.com/articles/2021/01/31/someone-comes-to-town-someone-leaves-town-part-30/
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:


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