But we never write anything in French…

At work, we all have confusing ‘multi-language’ keyboards, covered with accented letters for French and with important keys (such as pointy brackets) moved to strange locations.

Thankfully, you can just tell Windows to behave as though the keyboard has a standard US layout – a neat way of confirming that you really do have the entire layout memorized. As for me, I think I am ready for my blank keyboard.

Securing the City

Stairs outside the National Gallery, Ottawa

Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force – the NYPD describes the evolution of New York’s counterterrorism capabilities following the 2001 attacks against the World Trade Centre. Much of the responsibility is attributed to Raymond Kelly, who still serves as Police Commissioner, and David Cohen, his intelligence chief. Key among the changes was the development of much greater intelligence capabilities: everything from officers posted with federal agencies and overseas to developing a broad array of linguists, radiation detection systems, and advanced helicopter optics. All in all, the NYPD developed capabilities to become a mini-CIA, while also strengthening their policing and tactical capacity. All this was done in the face of considerable bureaucratic resistance, particularly from the federal agencies who felt their role was being subverted by the new developments.

Much more than Fred Burton’s book, Securing the City considers the checks and balances associated with greater police power. For instance, Dickey discusses the intelligence operations against people protesting the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004. Dickey also makes passing reference to torture and rendition (without considering the ethics of either at length), as well as surveillance and entrapment-type operations where intelligence officers pretend to help advance terrorist plots, so as to incriminate the others involved. Dickey comes to the general conclusion that the new NYPD capabilities are justified, given the situation in which the city finds itself. He does, however, worry if those capabilities will be properly maintained as budgetary pressures tighten, or when Kelly and the other key architects leave.

Some of the book’s chapters break out from the broad narrative to discuss specific topics, such as weapons of mass destruction or the dangerousness of ‘lone wolf’ operatives who operate independently and without the links to others that make most attackers detectable. While such treatment does make sense, the placement of the chapters can make the book feel a bit randomly assembled at times. Similarly, long italic passages (several pages long) are annoying to read. One other complaint is that the book includes a massive number of names, which can be difficult to keep track of. A listing of ‘characters’ with a brief description of the importance of each would be a nice addition to the front materials.

Dickey is harshly critical of the Iraq war, arguing that is was a distraction that undermined American security. He also argues that the ‘Global War on Terror’ was deeply misguided: “dangerously ill-conceived, mismanaged, and highly militarised.” He is also critical of Rudolf Guliani, who he accuses of taking credit for the successes of others, as well as making poor decisions of his own. His general position on the risk of terrorism is an interesting one. Basically, he thinks the capabilities of Al Qaeda and their sympathizers to carry out attacks in the U.S. has been exaggerated, as demonstrated by just how inept most of the post-9/11 plots were. Nevertheless, he sees the consequences of a terrorist attack as being so severe that even dubious plans being made by incompetent terrorists need to be tracked down and broken up. He repeatedly cites the example of the first World Trade centre bombing, where an inept group failed to advance their aims until Ramzi Yousef joined them and carried their operation to completion. Because of this, he agrees with Burton in thinking that terrorism cannot be treated primarily as a criminal matter. The standard of collecting courtroom-usable evidence is too high to disrupt plots early and effectively, while maintaining the covert capacity to do so again.

Overall, Securing the City is a worthwhile read for those with an interest in security, intelligence, or policing. It’s a nice demonstration of the global importance of some cities in the present age, and the special characteristics of New York. In particular, he praises the role of immigration in the city, citing it as one of the reasons why the NYPD was able to assemble such a diverse and effective capability. Those wanting more context in which to think about the strategic, tactical, and ethical issues surrounding modern terrorism would be well served by giving this book a read.

The P Versus NP Problem

There are some sorts of problems where it is relatively easy to check that a solution is correct, but hard to find that solution to begin with. For example, it is easy to check whether a large number is the product of two primes (429,496,729 = 19 X 22,605,091), but it is hard to find the factors of a large number. These problems are called ‘NP problems’ in mathematics, because they cannot be solved in polynomial time.

By a quirk of mathematics, if anyone ever comes up with an efficient way to solve one of these NP problems, the technique will be applicable to all such problems. That said, it may be the case that there is no efficient way to solve any of these problems. As such, whether all or none of them are efficiently soluble is an important question in mathematics.

The importance of the problem extends beyond the theoretical realm. For instance, the ‘traveling salesman’ problem is NP. There is a salesman who wants to visit X cities, with as little travel as possible. Finding the quickest route becomes dramatically more difficult as the number of cities increases. If someone could solve the P versus NP problem they could either help Fedex and UPS a lot (if an efficient solution to NP problems is found) or prove that their work will always be challenging (if it is proven that there are none).

This article provides more information on the P versus NP problem.

100 days to Copenhagen

We are now 100 days away from the climate change conference in Copenhagen. Between 12,000 and 15,000 people are expected to attend and, at best, the conference will produce a treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

Canada is basically going to the conference with no intention of negotiating. The government has been clear that their climate plan is both the least and the most they are willing to do. As such, we won’t be making offers of the sort: “if other countries do X, we will do Y.” Hopefully, the critical players (the US, EU, China, and Japan) will be able to hammer together an agreement that everyone else will then latch onto. When it comes to getting started with a serious program of global climate change mitigation, we are way behind schedule.

Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent

Purple grasses

I became aware of Fred Burton through the free weekly defence briefings put out by STRATFOR, his current employer. They stand out from other media reports, both as the result of the details they focus on and the thrust of their overall analysis. While I wouldn’t bet heavily on them being entirely correct, they do play a useful counterbalancing role when read alongside media stories that are generally rather similar.

Ghost describes Burton’s history with the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) between 1986 and 1993, with an epilogue in 2004. Burton’s work involved collecting intelligence, investigating plots and attacks, protecting diplomats, and so forth. He goes into detail on several of the investigations he was involved in, including the assassination of Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and the capture of Ramzi Yousef. He also describes some of the tactics and strategies employed by the DSS, as well as by other law enforcement and intelligence agencies. These include the operation of motorcades, cover techniques, and countersurveillance: a tactic he claims special credit for deploying in the protective services.

The book’s greatest strength lies in the details it includes, on everything from the character of different intelligence agencies to equipment used to various sorts of tradecraft. While the breathless descriptions can sometimes feel like the content of a mediocre spy novel, the detailed technical discussions offer insight into how clandestine services actually operate. Of course, it is virtually certain that security and secrecy led to parts of the book being incomplete or distorted. Still, it has a candid quality that makes it an engrossing read. One interesting perspective offered is on the connections between different states and terrorist groups: particularly the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah; between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, and various terrorist groups; as well as the ways in which modern terrorist tactics evolved from those developed by Black September, the group that carried out the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

At times, the book’s language is overwrought, especially when Burton is discussing the innocence of the victims of terrorism and the ‘evil’ nature of those who commit it. His reflections on his own ethical thinking may be genuine, but seem somewhat hackneyed and unoriginal at the same time. He never portrays American intelligence or police services as having any flaws, with the exception of when bureaucrats get overly involved and stop brave and effective agents from doing their work well. No consideration is given to the abuses that can occur when effective oversight is not present. Burton is also unrelentingly hostile towards the media: accusing them of offering superficial analysis and being eager to divulge information that undermines the clandestine efforts of intelligence organizations. The book is also a bit too well sprinkled with cliches, such as decisions being made and information being assessed ‘above Burton’s pay grade.’ In general, Burton seems a bit too willing to assume that all US intelligence agents are working on the side of the angels and that oversight and accountability can only hamper their efforts.

One interesting passage mentions how little time was required to circumvent the encryption on Yousef’s laptop. This makes me wonder what sort of algorithm had been employed and how it was implemented, as well as the techniques used by those breaking the encryption. I suspect that the actual encryption algorithm is not what was overcome, at least not through some brute force means. It is far more likely that they were able to compromise the password by comprehensively searching through the data on hand, including temporary files and perhaps contents of RAM. It does you little good to have a hard drive encrypted with AES-256 if it is possible to recover or guess the key in a short span of time.

In general, the book is one I recommend. It has a good authentic feel to it and includes some unusual perspectives and operational details. Burton’s personal dedication, as well as that of the agents he serves with and admires, is both convincing and commendable.

WPA cracked in 60 seconds

WPA is a more secure encryption system for wireless networks than the older WEP system, which was notoriously vulnerable. Now, Japanese researchers have devised an attack that cracks WPA networks using the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) algorithm quickly and easily. So far, WPA2 and WPA using AES are not vulnerable to the attack. On past form, it seems likely that those will eventually become vulnerable to rapid compromise, as well.

The broader point this demonstrates is how attacks always get better and never get worse. As such, the longer any particular system has been deployed, the less likely it is to be secure. Threat analysis needs to be ongoing, and accompanied by the patching and replacement of vulnerable systems. Both because of improving computer power and new mathematical developments, this is especially true when it comes to cryptography. As MC Frontalot explains (in a song that references rainbow tables), “you can’t hide secrets from the future with math.”

Open thread: peak oil

Diseased leaves

The basic idea of the peak oil hypothesis is that global oil production will follow a bell-shaped curve over time, and that we are somewhere near the top of the bell. Once it is passed, a steep decline in output is expected, probably alongside quickly rising prices. The bell-shaped progression is one that has been observed in individual countries that have seen their output peak, including the United States. The Oil Drum is probably the premier website discussing the peak oil possibility.

A world with swiftly falling hydrocarbon availability and rising prices would have numerous economic and geopolitical consequences, from rising food prices to a probable scramble for alternative fuels. That being said, not everyone finds the peak oil theory convincing. Some argue that improved technology will allow us to tap ever-more-unconventional sources of hydrocarbons. Some argue that, rather than falling off sharply, global production will go into a long plateau phase. Others argue that the emergence of alternative fuels – such as biofuels – will fill the gap associated with falling production easily.

What do readers here think? Are we likely to see a sharp contraction in global oil output in coming decades? If so, what would the consequences be? (We already talked about hedging against the possibility.) What effect will new technologies have on this, and what consequences does it have for climate change outcomes and policy-making?

(On one side note, some economists who I’ve spoken to expect carbon pricing to seriously decrease the demand for oil by 2030 – to the point where global prices collapse and unconventional reserves such as the Athabasca oil sands are not worth exploiting. What do people think of that possibility?)

Built-in antivirus for OS X

Rumours are circulating that Apple’s Snow Leopard OS will include antivirus capabilities. This is a welcome development. While OS X rightly has a good reputation for security, there is no commercial operating system that is immune from malware. In addition to malware that targets OS X itself, there are also exploits based around flash, Adobe PDFs, and even specific pieces of hardware.

Adding antivirus protection might be a bit of a public relations blow to Apple, which has cultivated a false sense that there is no malware that affects Macs. Nevertheless, it is a good security move. Indeed, the server version of OS X has included such capabilities for some time.

Language changes in Canada’s foreign policy

Canadian Standards Association logo

Apparently, the Conservative government has ordered Canada’s diplomats to stop using the terms ‘child soldier’ and ‘international humanitarian law.’ I heard about it on CBC’s The Current before leaving for work today, and it doesn’t seem to have been picked up much by the mainstream press. Apparently, “gender equality” is also on the chopping block. The changes may have been partly motivated by the continuing saga of Omar Khadr.

The basic points made by those interviewed on The Current are sound ones: that this is an underhanded way to effect foreign policy changes, especially given how the Conservative platform in the last election basically ignored that area of policy-making. Also, the changes run against Canada’s tradition of advocating the humanitarian side of international law, including through the efforts of the Mulroney government to address some of the issues involving children in war situations.

If this government wants to take a public position to back away from international humanitarian law and the protection of children exploited in wartime, they are within their rights to do so. Trying to do it by stealth, however, is a disservice to Canada’s internationalist traditions, its civil servants in the foreign service, and the Canadian public. Developments in areas like the prosecution of war criminals are among the most significant and positive in the recent history of international relations. It would be a shame if Canada took up an obstructionist position (either openly or covertly), especially at a time when the new American administration might be able to soften the rejectionist American stance on institutions like the International Criminal Court.