Ethics and CAPP advertising

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) have a new advertising campaign for the oil sands that is all about personal credibility: the ads feature the faces, names, and signatures of oil company employees who argue that the environmental impact of the oil sands is manageable and shrinking.

Since CAPP made the ads personal in the first place, it seems appropriate to do the same and ask about the ethics of appearing in these ads.

War photographer

In my photojournalism class, we watched the 2001 documentary War Photographer, about the work of James Nachtwey. The film showed him working in both conflict zones and zones of acute poverty, including Indonesia, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. It was interesting and well done, and may well have been a balanced portrayal, but the absence of any kind of critical comment on Nachtwey made it feel somewhat like a hagiography.

It may well be the case that Nachtwey is a talented and self-sacrificing man who has helped to increase public concern about various sorts of severe suffering. At the same time, an account based on his own perspective – along with that of his friends, admirers, and co-workers – cannot make that case convincingly. I suppose this is a fundamental problem with autobiographies. Perhaps there should be some sort of third-party certification process where impartial outsiders compare the content of a book or film with all the information they can gather, and then certify or refuse to certify the content. Of course, not many politicians or other public figures would be willing to go through such a screening.

One potent message conveyed by the film is about extreme poverty. Seeing families living right beside dangerous railroad tracks in Indonesia sends a powerful emotional message. Of course, our intellectual response to seeing that varies depending on a constellation of other beliefs. Some people will see that and think: “This shows why economic growth is such a vital phenomenon, when it comes to improving human welfare”. Others will focus more on distributive justice, and say that the issue is less about enriching everyone, and more about transferring wealth from the affluent to the desperately poor.

The first rule of the internet

Against a sophisticated attacker, nothing connected to the internet is secure. Not your GMail account, not your Facebook account, not your website, not your home computer (especially if you are using WiFi), not industrial facilities, not governments.

While this may not absolutely always hold, I am increasingly convinced that the right way to treat the internet is to act as if this is so. If there is some information you absolutely want to keep private, keep it in a form that is not linked to the internet. Dig out an old computer for non-networked use or, better yet, use paper. Accept that anything you put online, even in a private email, could end up on display to the entire world.

People can certainly do a lot to protect themselves from what are essentially untargeted attacks. The people who run botnets just need control of random computers, and their attack methods are good enough to breach security on your average system. If security in yours is significantly better than average, you are probably at little risk from such annoyances. Everything changes, however, when the attacker has resources and expertise at their disposal, and they have you for a specific target. Organizations like governments, corporations, and organized crime groups have these resources, and attack techniques are always spreading to less sophisticated operators. As they say at the NSA, “Attacks always get better; they never get worse.”

Similarly, it is safest to assume that there is no mechanism that you can use to secure a non-networked computer from a sophisticated attacker. You can use encryption, but chances are they will be able to pull the passphrase from somewhere or find some workaround. If that passphrase is short, it can be defeated using brute force dictionary attacks. If it is stored anywhere on your computer, phone, or the internet, it can be found.

If you want secure encryption, use something like to generate a random alphanumeric string with as many bits of data as the encryption you are using (there is little point in using 256-bit AES with a weak key like ‘AnteLope2841’. You need a key like:


Once you have a strong key, write it down on paper, keep it locked up, and never use it for anything other than decrypting that one file.

Evey in The Glebe

A little while ago, my friend Evey was in town and was good enough to pose for some portraits around The Glebe. She writes a fashion blog called Hey, Good Lookin’.

Remarkably, despite being a native of Ottawa, Evey had never been to the Wild Oat restaurant.

It’s a nice place, with excellent loaves of olive bread available. Just don’t expect to find anywhere to sit during the most popular times of day.

I rather like this cape-like garment, and the thick wool is well-suited to Ottawa’s shortening days.

Octopus Books is an independent shop with an entire section devoted to ‘U.S. Imperialism’. Here, Evey is posing outside.

Proximity to the canal is one of the nice things about The Glebe as a neighbourhood. That, and the presence of Ottawa’s best bagel shop.

The bridge shown here is the same as the one incorporated into the current banner for this site, though I am going to need to find a Toronto bridge to substitute in fairly soon.

When Evey is back in Ottawa around Christmas time, I am hoping we will be able to add to these with some shots in the snow.

Air pollution from shipping

This article from The Guardian makes an astonishing claim: Health risks of shipping pollution have been ‘underestimated’.

The article says that a single one of the giant container ships that transport much of the world’s freight emits as much air pollution at 50 million cars:

Cars driving 15,000km a year emit approximately 101 grammes of sulphur oxide gases (or SOx) in that time. The world’s largest ships’ diesel engines which typically operate for about 280 days a year generate roughly 5,200 tonnes of SOx.

The article refers to an American study that found that the world’s 90,000 cargo ships collectively cause 60,000 deaths per year in the United States, through air pollution. It also estimated the associated health care costs at $330 billion per year.

Reducing air pollution is one of the significant co-benefits that can accompany the replacement of fossil fuels with sustainable, zero-carbon sources of energy. At the same time, ships powered using fossil fuels could be made to emit fewer toxic chemicals by toughening the emission and fuel quality standards imposed on them.

Ethics and weapons of mass destruction

Unsurprisingly, my review of Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb generated a discussion on the ethics of the United States using such bombs on Japan in 1945.

In the same book, a moral question with some similar characteristics comes up. Describing the American attack on Iwo Jima, Rhodes explains:

Washington secretly considered sanitizing the island with artillery shells loaded with poison gas lobbed in by ships standing well offshore; the proposal reached the White House by Roosevelt curtly vetoed it. It might have saved thousands of lives and hastened the surrender – arguments used to justify most of the mass slaughters of the Second Worlld War, and neither the United States nor Japan had signed the Geneva Convention prohibiting such use – but Roosevelt presumably remembered the world outcry that followed German introduction of poison gas in the First World War and decided to leave the sanitizing of Iwo Jima to the U.S. Marines.

In the end, 6,821 American marines were killed and 21,865 were injured. 20,000 Japanese troops died, with 1,083 ultimately surrendering.

I presume most readers think the use of poison gas would have been more immoral than attacking with Marines, despite how similar numbers of Japanese troops would likely have been killed in either case. What I am curious about is the reasoning. Is the use of certain kinds of weapons fundamentally unacceptable, regardless of the consequences of their use or non-use? Or would using poison gas on Iwo Jima have established a harmful precedent that would have caused greater suffering later? Or is there some other justification?

Spying on the U.N.

In addition to describing many situations of allies spying on allies, Richard Aldrich’s GCHQ: The Uncensored Story Of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency also describes a number of alleged incidents of the United States and United Kingdom spying on the United Nations, particularly during the led-up to the Iraq War.

Aldrich describes how the NSA and GCHQ used the UNSCOM weapons inspectors in Iraq as “short-range collectors” of signals intelligence (SIGINT). He also describes the bugging of the U.N. headquarters in Iraq during that period, the bugging of the U.N. Secretariat (including Secretary General Annan’s office), and espionage conducted against non-permanent members of the Security Council before the vote that would have authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Aldrich claims that “listening in on the UN was routine” and that “in 1945 the United States had pressed for the UN headquarters to be in New York precisely in order to make eavesdropping easier”.

A relentless rise

According to data published in Nature Geoscience, global carbon dioxide emissions fell because of the recession in 2009, though by less than initially expected. Now, they are increasing once again.

The atmospheric concentration of CO2 is now at 387.18 parts per million, about 34% above where it was before the Industrial Revolution. For the concentration to stop rising – and the climate to stabilize – net global greenhouse gas emissions must fall to zero.

GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency

Richard Aldrich’s excellent GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency contributes significantly to the public understanding of the role secret intelligence agencies have played in world affairs and the domestic politics of Britain and elsewhere. From the codebreaking of the second world war to the frightening mass surveillance and data mining of the modern era, Aldrich provides a consistently interesting and informative account. Technical details on signals intelligence (SIGINT) techniques are relatively few, but the book contains a lot of new and interesting information running quite close to the present day.

GCHQ’s history

The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) is Britain’s version of America’s National Security Agency (NSA) or Canada’s Communication Security Establishment (CSE). They are primarily the governments interceptors and decrypters of communications: from the telemetry data from the missile tests of foreign powers to (increasingly) the electronic records tracking the communication and behaviour of all ordinary citizens. Aldrich covers the history of GCHQ from the second world war virtually up to the present day: with long sections on the U.S.-U.K. intelligence alliance; the Cold War; progressing intelligence technologies; overseas listening stations and decolonization; terrorism; secrecy, the media, and oversight by politicians and the public; the post-Cold War era; and the modern day.

Aldrich describes an extraordinary number of cases of allies spying on one another: from the United States and United Kingdom during the interwar and WWII periods to India bugging Tony Blair’s hotel room during a Prime Ministerial visit to the considerable espionage conducted by the U.S. and U.K. against the United Nations Security Council and Secretariat in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War. It is safe to assume that everybody is spying on everybody all the time. Indeed, in the later chapters, GCHQ describes how private organizations and organized crime groups are increasingly getting into the game. For instance, he alleges that British banks have paid out billions of Pounds to hackers who have gotten into their systems and blackmailed them.

GCHQ also documents the collusion between private companies and espionage organizations, going back at least to the telegraph and earliest submarine cables. Right from the beginning, the owners and operators of these communication links secretly passed along data to intelligence organizations, which was used for purposes of diplomatic and military espionage, as well as to gain economic advantage through industrial espionage. Aldrich also describes how private companies have been made to build back doors into their products so that organizations like GCHQ and the NSA can crack the communications of people using them. This applied to manufacturers of cryptographic equipment in neutral countries like Switzerland during the Cold War.

Aldrich also argues that the Data Encryption Standard (DES) was intentionally weakened to allow NSA snooping, though I have read elsewhere that the NSA actually used its expertise to strengthen the algorithm. Aldrich does a good job of describing one deep tension in the current mandate of GCHQ: on one hand, it is increasingly encouraged to help private British companies like banks secure their computer and communication systems. At the same time, it tries to preserve back doors and insecure communication methods in products used by others, so as not to undermine its own espionage mandate. Similarly, Aldrich talks on a number of occasions about the tension between using intelligence information and protecting the sources and methods used to acquire it. While it may be especially damning to condemn the dubious actions of a foreign power using their own intercepted and decrypted communication, doing so inevitably informs them that you are reading their traffic. Something similar is true when it comes to using surreptitiously acquired information to prosecute criminal trials.

GCHQ contains lots of information on the spotty record of the world’s intelligence services, when it comes to predicting major events. He describes many situations where policy-makers were caught by surprise, because their spy services didn’t pass along warning. These include the Yom Kippur War, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and others. Aldrich also describes the Iraq-WMD fiasco, what it shows about the analysis of intelligence services, and what some of its broader political ramifications were.

At many points, Aldrich identifies how GCHQ and the NSA are by far the most costly intelligence services of the U.K. and U.S. respectively. The NSA dwarfs the CIA, just as GCHQ dwarfs MI5 and MI6 in staffing and resources. This is reflective of the special importance placed on intercepted communications by policy-makers. It is arguably also demonstrative of how GCHQ has been able to use the deep secrecy of its work to evade government scrutiny and secure considerable material support.

GCHQ’s present

The last section of Aldrich’s book is positively frightening. He describes how the fear of terrorism has driven a massive increase in technical surveillance – certainly within the U.K. but very likely elsewhere as well. He describes how a 2006 European law requires telephone and internet companies to retain comprehensive records of the communications of their customers for ten years, and how the government is planning to store their own copy of the information for data mining purposes. Aldrich explains:

The answer [to why the government wants its own copy of the data] is ‘data mining’, the use of computers to comb through unimaginable amounts of information looking for patterns and statistical relationships. This practice now constitutes the most insidious threat to personal liberty. What makes surveillance different in the age of ubiquitous computer and the mobile phone is that our data is never thrown away. Machines routinely store millions of details about our everyday lives, and at some point in the future it will be possible to bring these all together and search them.

Aldrich quotes a disturbing warning from the retiring Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald GC. Macdonald warns that powers are being irreversibly granted to the state, and that “we may end up living with something we can’t bear.”

Personally, I think all this is much more dangerous than terrorism. If the choice is between tolerating a few terrorist attacks per year and building up a gigantic secret alliance between government and private companies, designed to track all the details of the lives of individuals, I would prefer the terrorism. After all, terrorist groups are weak outlaw organizations with limited resources. The state, by contrast, is massive, potent, permanent, and not always subject to effective oversight. Our fear of a few bands of fanatics (collectively far less dangerous than smoking or car crashes) is driving us into giving the state unparalleled ability to monitor everybody.

The book is similar in purpose to Matthew Aid’s The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency, though I think Aldrich’s book is significantly better. I recommend the entire book to history buffs and those with an interest in intelligence or the Anglo-American alliance. The last section – on the growing power of the state in response to terrorism – I recommend to everybody.