Modern day political prisoners

Here is a list of political activists who have been imprisoned and/or seriously harassed by governments for speaking truth to power. The list is, of course, far from complete. These are just the ones I know about from the top of my head. Some people still think that we live in a free society under the rule of law. This post is an attempt to wake these people up.

  • While not technically a prisoner at the moment, Edward Snowden would be one if the US government had its way. His crime, of course, is telling the truth about abuse of state power. However, as Snowden himself points out, telling the truth is not a crime.

    If you know about additional political prisoners or activists being persecuted by governments, send me an email and I will add them to the list!

    Casual Activism in the Apple Store

    Today I discovered a new form of casual activism. Was waiting for a friend in a shopping mall and decided to go into the nearby Apple store to browse some news on one of their iPads. I then got the idea to go around to every demo device in the store, opening the browser and typing the URLs of various alternative media sites. When my friend arrived, almost every iPad, MacBook etc was displaying stuff like Zero Hedge, Drudge Report, Infowars, Cornucopia, Reason, Strike the Root and others. As I was leaving the store I saw a man scrolling on the iPad with a fascinated look in his eyes.

    The Importance of the Individual

    Earlier tonight, I read a post on Facebook (non-public link) by fellow libertarian Robert Sundström which contained, among others, the following sentences:

    The individual is without doubt the most important entity in society. Only the individual think, reason and act. Only it know how to satisfy its wants. [...] A group of individuals are nothing but equal potential to spontaneous order and imminent chaos - depending on the formalization of the structure. There is nothing special about it - not even when it comes to an outcome of a democratic process.

    This was said in the context of economic theory, where it is not unreasonable, but it inspired me to write a few paragraphs about a wider point that I have thought long and hard about. As I perceive it, statements of this type are often made as a kind of libertarian dogma, being applied far beyond the realm of economics. I am not accusing Robert of this, only thanking him for stimulating me to think and write.

    In any case, the status of the individual is a core issue for libertarianism and I think many libertarians need to think more carefully about it. Here is what I wrote about it in a comment:

    Individuals are almost completely defined by the groups they come from. Just think of language, religion, all kinds of values and other customs. These things play a much bigger part in defining who you are, than your individual personality traits or even your individual actions. For example, if you had grown up in the country-side in Afghanistan, you would almost certainly be a hard-core muslim. Your individual capacity to reason about such things and come to your own conclusions amounts to almost nothing if the comparison is between cultures, rather than between individuals within a single culture.

    Human beings are flock animals, like chimpanzees. Not solitary animals, like orangutans. We are biologically hard-wired to live in symbiosis with with a small group. To say that there is "nothing special" about such groups is profoundly unrealistic. So speaking from biological facts, rather than romantic ideals, the flock/tribe/village/community is the most important entity in society. Individuals are secondary, since they are basically extensions of these groups. I also think it more realistic to consider the community to be the proper level of autonomy, rather than the individual, since communities are the only entities that are actually capable of long-term self-determination.

    (Incidentally, this solves a number of common problems associated with libertarianism. For example, what about the individual rights of children? That question is based on a false premise - the much more important issue is the autonomy of the groups children grow up in.)

    In my view, the root of almost all societal problems, not least things like over-sized governments, is the destruction of organic communities. The reason people are dependent on the state is that they do not have local communities to support them, which was the way things worked for tens of thousands of years until the process of civilization gradually shifted the dependency from organic communities to governments. Conversely, the only way to decrease dependence on government is to recreate local communities. It is simply not an alternative for everyone to create their own lives according to their individual preferences, because again, if you are even able to reason about such things, e.g. if you can use a language, you are already created in the image of some group.

    Libertarians open themselves up for ridicule when they focus too much on the individual, because everyone else is very aware of the degree to which everyone is dependent on social factors. Instead, we should focus on changing which kinds of groups are considered important. Instead of identifying with nations, we should try to form natural-sized communities (30-100 individuals perhaps) which function so well that the government becomes redundant. Without such communities, removing the state from the equation might even be very dangerous, which is why I have stopped arguing for abolishing the government, to instead focus on building a good community around myself.

    In answer to this comment, I got the question whether or not individuals are to be considered as insignificant, due to their biological hard-wiring, and the objection that the human mind is adaptive and can break out of specific influences. This is an additional comment I made with regard to this:

    That the individual is not the most important entity in society does not mean that individuals are not important, and indeed, most great leaps forward seem to spring from the minds of individual people. But note that progress can only happen if the ideas of a great individual takes root in a well-functioning group, i.e. when a community starts pursuing the ideas together.

    A point I was trying to make is that your ability to "break out from specific influences" is very limited, since all your ideas, even about the concepts of influence, breaking out etc is very tightly connected to what culture you grew up in. Sure, you can change many details, but you will have no desire to change many of the big things, since you have taken them for granted since birth. Do you think you would be able to become a libertarian if you were born in a small Afghani village or in a stone-age tribe?

    Hacktivist attack against Obamacare

    Just as I was finishing up my previous post, about the seeming self-sabotage involved in the development of the Obamacare website, this interesting piece of news turned up in my feed:

    Denial-of-service tool targeting site discovered

    Here is the message from the supposed hacktivists:

    Destroy Obama Care.

    This program continually displays alternate page of the ObamaCare website. It has no virus, trojans, worms, or cookies.

    The purpose is to overload the ObamaCare website, to deny service to users and perhaps overload and crash the system.

    You can open as many copies of this program as you want. Each copy opens multiple links to the site.

    ObamaCare is an affront to the Constitutional rights of the people. We HAVE the right to CIVIL disobedience.

    Perhaps it is just the coincidence with the other blog post (which I started writing yesterday), but I feel a bit skeptical here. First of all, this is not a serious threat on a technical level (see the article for details), but rather a symbolic action of some kind. The note strikes me as odd, not the kind of thing I would expect either from hacker types or constitutionalist activist types. I generally appreciate this kind of civil disobedience, but given the ineffectiveness of the attack itself, I wonder if this does not play into the hands of the White House, which is already building a narrative where threats of external sabotage is used to explain the failed website launch.

    Obamacare - Incompetence or Sabotage?

    Government IT is hard. I say this from experience, being an IT contractor with government agencies on the client list. Big IT projects failing is if course a sign of incompetence, but not necessarily of any extreme variety. However, now that more details are coming out about the fiasco of, the online interface of Obamacare, I think the problems we are hearing about goes beyond the usual. In this article from the Washington Post we supposedly get some additional inside information, and some of it is fascinating:

    [...] the president emphasized the exchange’s central importance during regular staff meetings to monitor progress. No matter which aspects of the sprawling law had been that day’s focus, the official said, Obama invariably ended the meeting the same way: “All of that is well and good, but if the Web site doesn’t work, nothing else matters.

    So it seems that Obama had the right kind of focus for a long time, at least since one and a half years ago. How then could things go so wrong, despite the best of intentions? Here are some clues:

    “They were running the biggest start-up in the world, and they didn’t have anyone who had run a start-up, or even run a business,” said David Cutler, a Harvard professor and health adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign

    Inside the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the main agency responsible for the exchanges, there was no single administrator whose full-time job was to manage the project.

    The Medicaid center’s chief operating officer, a longtime career staffer named Michelle Snyder, nominally oversaw the various pieces, but, as one former administration official put it: “Implementing the exchange was one of 39 things she did. There wasn’t a person who said, ‘My job is the seamless implementation of the Affordable Care Act.’ ”

    But the problem was not only neglecting to put a proper management structure in place. There was also direct interference to block critical parts of the projects. Here is one example out of several mentioned:

    According to two former officials, CMS staff members struggled at “multiple meetings” during the spring of 2011 to persuade White House officials for permission to publish diagrams known as “concepts of operation,” which they believed were necessary to show states what a federal exchange would look like. The two officials said the White House was reluctant because the diagrams were complex, and they feared that the Republicans might reprise a tactic from the 1990s of then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who mockingly brandished intricate charts created by a task force led by first lady Hillary Clinton.

    In the end, the White House did not allow the diagrams to be published. Ostensibly, they were protecting the project against potential sabotage, but what they were in fact doing, time after time, was sabotaging the project themselves!

    Finally, being a software contractor, this makes my stomach churn:

    CGI was issuing warnings of its own. On Aug. 17, about six weeks before the launch date, a company employee sent an e-mail to a CMS staffer — with copies to more than a dozen other CMS staff members — detailing an “updated schedule” for work on the exchange. The e-mail, obtained by The Post, said that, for the tasks that CGI was responsible for, the exchange was 55 percent complete.

    Note carefully what is actually being said here: Less than two months before release date, the contractor reported being barely more than half-way done. If this was indeed the case, standing by the original release date was madness.

    These anecdotes are line with many other stories from inside the Obama administration - the environment seems to be one of paranoia and insularity. The president has a few advisors that he places an enormous amount of trust in, and these people are the only ones who get to run things, regardless of what skills are needed. t is amazing and somewhat frightening that Obama and his staff could not break out of their bunker mentality even when their greatest signature achievement was at stake. If they act with such recklessness when their own core interests are at stake, how could we possibly trust them to look out for ours?

    Some have suggested that the whole Obamacare project might have been designed to fail. I don't buy it, since I think lack of competence is a sufficient explanation, but I see where they are coming from. And I think some of these actions are clear examples of self-sabotage, intentional or not.

    Deep Packet Inspection as a Service

    Deep packet inspection is an advanced method used, among other things, for monitoring data traffic. A strength of this technique is that it enables secret monitoring, since it operates at the network level. In a nutshell, a network operator grabs each packet of data sent, does what it wants with it and then sends it along on its way. To the intended recipient it looks exactly like a normal transfer.

    TeliaSonera is the largest telecom operator in Sweden and Finland. The company was created by merging two former state monopolies and is now notorious for providing surveillance technology to foreign states with dictatorial regimes. The company has a page on its website about "Freedom and expression and privacy" where we find these rather vague sentences about customer privacy:

    Much of the business of our sector in general is built upon the collection of data about individuals and their communication. [...] In this context, there are technological trends that pose challenges to all kinds of players in the field of ICT, including TeliaSonera. [...] These trends are such as; virtual networks and software available remotely for access by users (the ‘cloud’), behavioral advertising, examination of a data of a computer’s network enabling for instance, network management, security and data mining (‘deep packet inspection’), location awareness and the risk that seemingly anonymous data can be re-identified. [...] We are committed to protect and safeguard our customer’s privacy.

    Did you notice the words "deep packet inspection"? Did you interpret that as a commitment from TeliaSonera to protect their customers from this type of monitoring? Think again. Deep packet inspection is actually a service being sold by TeliaSonera to their ISP customers. It is an optional feature that an ISP can buy to increase their control over what traffic is allowed to the end customer.

    If you have been following recent events, this should not surprise you. But perhaps it would interest you to see an example of how TeliaSonera markets this technology to their corporate customers. Of course, as always when new methods of Internet control is rolled out, it is sanctified in the name of protecting children. When it comes down to it, what they are selling is, in the exact words of TeliaSonera:

    a technical solution combining intelligent routing with deep packet inspection in order to deny access to URLs

     Here is the original document:

    Snowden: A Manifesto for the Truth

    This article by Edward Snowden was published today in Der Spiegel. Since I could not find a translation online, I decided to publish one (suggestions for improvements are welcome). I previously published the full text in German.

    In a very short time, the world has learned much about unaccountable secret agencies and about sometimes illegal surveillance programs. Sometimes the agencies even deliberately try to hide their surveillance from high officials and the public. While the NSA and GCHQ seem to be the worst offenders - this is what the currently available documents suggest - we must not forget that mass surveillance is a global problem in need of global solutions.

    Such programs are not only a threat to privacy, they also threaten freedom of speech and open societies. The existence of spy technology should not determine policy. We have a moral duty to ensure that our laws and values limit monitoring programs and protect human rights.

    Society can only understand and control these problems through an open, unbiased and informed debate. At first, some governments feeling embarrassed by the revelations of mass surveillance initiated an unprecedented campaign of persecution to supress this debate. They intimidated journalists and criminalized publishing the truth. At this point, the public was not yet able to evaluate the benefits of the revelations. They relied on their governments to decide correctly.

    Today we know that this was a mistake and that such action does not serve the public interest. The debate which they wanted to prevent will now take place in countries around the world. And instead of doing harm, the societal benefits of this new public knowledge is now clear, since reforms are now proposed in the form of increased oversight and new legislation.

    Citizens have to fight suppression of information on matters of vital public importance. To tell the truth is not a crime.

    This text was written by Edward Snowden on November 1, 2013 in Moscow. It was sent to SPIEGEL staff over an encrypted channel.

    An alternative view on Snowden

    I am among those who have thought of Edward Snowden as a hero. I certainly think that we are in a better situation now that the public has more information about government surveillance. And I imagine that whatever his precise circumstances has been, Snowden has shown considerable and admirable courage - considering that the most likely outcome for him (acknowledged by himself in the first interview) is that he gets to spend the rest of his life in a supermax prison.

    However, we can not be certain of his motives. Neither of the details in his story. It is always very useful when ideas you feel strongly about (e.g. "Edward Snowden is a hero") are analyzed and challenged. Today I read an article that did just that, and since it might do the same for you, I want to recommend it:

    Sojuznik Snowden: A solid Russian investment

    Jan Kallberg outlines an alternative story about how Snowden might have arrived in the public eye. His take on it is provocative and seemingly insightful. Basically he says that the official story is to good to be true, but if you assume that Snowden was recruited by the FSB and is releasing information on their behalf, things start to make sense:

    Let us instead ask if this way of telling the story is more accurate: Snowden aired dissent in online forums and social media, was identified by Russian intelligence and then approached. Snowden was at that point disappointed with the US government and, with the right compensation, he was ready to jump. They gave him an offer: money and secure way out after they ensured a free passage through China to make it less obvious. The Russians already had all the knowledge about the NSA activities Snowden revealed. This information had been gathered through still-active Russian spies within the US classified environment, cyber breaches and traditional intelligence gathering. The FSB operatives had the whole package, the classified documents and the game plan, when they met Snowden in Hong Kong. The rest is a well-orchestrated drawn out spreading of the information FSB had.

    I have no idea whether or not Kallberg's theory is likely to be true, but assuming it is - what would the consequences be? I have not really thought this through, but if it turned out that the information releases have all been part of a Russian psy-op, I suppose that I would no longer consider Snowden to be a hero. However, I also suppose that my basic reflection would still be valid, i.e. the public is better of having the information than not having it, even if some or all of it is edited for FSB propaganda purposes. I take the fact that the US government has denied precious few of the allegations as an indication that most of the information is accurate.

    Why evaluate heredity vs environment?

    Celia Green writes about heredity, intelligence and education. She makes an interesting point about the beliefs people hold in regards to heredity vs environment and their relation to government intervention:

    One may wonder why it is of any interest to attempt to evaluate the relative importance of heredity and environmental factors on functionality. It only becomes of interest, surely, when opportunity of various kinds is not paid for directly by the individual, or his parents or guardian, but supplied by the state.

    At present, many people, or at least many among the most influential, seem to wish to believe that there is no such thing as innate ability, and that there should be equality of opportunity (and hence equality of outcome). But what are we to understand by equality of opportunity? In practice, this is taken to mean that resources should be applied lavishly to those whose performance is below the average. Thus children with ‘special needs’, for example, are to be sent in taxis, accompanied by social workers, to special schools. And, although this is less explicitly advocated, those who are far ahead should be held back.

    I miss you, America

    The founding of the United States was one of the most impressive and admirable events in world history. For a long time this new country was the world's foremost beacon of freedom. At this point however, the US has become one of the leaders in oppressive government tactics, and disturbing reports are published every day about increasing tyranny.

    Oh, America, how far you have fallen!

    NSA infiltrates Yahoo, Google data centers

    DHS Spends $500,000 on Fully Automatic Pepper Spray Launchers

    Adam Kokesh, a modern day political prisoner

    Free Speech T-shirt Maker Threatened By NSA

    White House Forces Companies To Keep Quiet About Obamacare Problems