(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘security

“There are no private lives. This a most important aspect of modern life.”*…

The idea that China gives every citizen a “social credit score” continues to capture the horrified imagination of many. But it is more bogeyman than reality. Instead, we should be worrying about other, more invasive surveillance practices – and not just in China, argues MERICS analyst Vincent Brussee

“What if every action that you took in your life was recorded in a score like it was a video game?” … “If your score drops to 950, you will be subject to re-education.” … “It is the beginning of slavery, complete control, and the disappearance of all freedoms … In China, they call it social credit.” These are just some of the statements made in parliamentary debates in Europe and online commentaries about China’s Social Credit System. Given the vehemence of these views, and the attention they attract, it must have come as a real headscratcher to many when China recently pledged that would ban the use of AI for social scoring.  

So, what are the facts relating to China’s Social Credit System (SoCS)? First, a system does exist, but it is very different from what is imagined by many critics outside China. The biggest disconnect is around the notion of scores. Some commentators seem to imagine that a magic algorithm draws from AI cameras and internet surveillance all over the country to calculate a score that determines everyone’s place in society. In reality, the SoCS is not the techno-dystopian nightmare we fear: it is lowly digitalized, highly fragmented, and primarily focuses on businesses. Most importantly, such a score simply does not exist.

… this does not mean that the SoCS is benign. It also does not imply that China’s broader surveillance apparatus is a myth – quite to the contrary. However, public debates typically do not focus on these aspects. Rather, the interest in the system often stems from broader anxieties about digital technologies, as reflected in the UN pledge and similar actions taken by other countries. Often, the SoCS is merely invoked as a metaphor: either to depict some technological threat at home or to portray a techno-dystopian China. 

This is symptomatic of a tendency to see China not as a real place with real people, but as an abstract “negative opposite” of “us.” While our discussions on tech in China remain overshadowed by largely fictional scoring, we ignore real threats of surveillance to exactly those people in China. And when we use the SoCS to invoke the image of a technological threat at home, we lose sight of potentially acute technological threats much closer to reality. 

In both cases, the real losers are the people that those making the claims say they want to protect…

More at “China’s social credit score – untangling myth from reality,” from @Vincent_WDB at @merics_eu.

See also: “China just announced a new social credit law. Here’s what it means- The West has largely gotten China’s social credit system wrong. But draft legislation introduced in November offers a more accurate picture of the reality,” in @techreview.

[Image above: source]

* Philip K. Dick, who also said “There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.”


As we ponder the panopticon, we might recall that it was on this date in 1942 that a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi, working inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, achieved the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction… laying the foundation for the atomic bomb and later, nuclear power generation– that’s to say, inaugurating the Atomic Age.

“…the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World…”
– Coded telephone message confirming first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, December 2, 1942.

Illustration depicting the scene on Dec. 2, 1942 (Photo copyright of Chicago Historical Society) source

Indeed, exactly 15 years later, on this date in 1957, the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime uses, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, reached criticality; the first power was produced 16 days later, after engineers integrated the generator into the distribution grid of Duquesne Light Company.


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December 2, 2022 at 1:00 am

“One of the most singular characteristics of the art of deciphering is the strong conviction possessed by every person, even moderately acquainted with it, that he is able to construct a cipher which nobody else can decipher.”*…

And yet, for centuries no one has succeeded. Now, as Erica Klarreich reports, cryptographers want to know which of five possible worlds we inhabit, which will reveal whether truly secure cryptography is even possible…

Many computer scientists focus on overcoming hard computational problems. But there’s one area of computer science in which hardness is an asset: cryptography, where you want hard obstacles between your adversaries and your secrets.

Unfortunately, we don’t know whether secure cryptography truly exists. Over millennia, people have created ciphers that seemed unbreakable right until they were broken. Today, our internet transactions and state secrets are guarded by encryption methods that seem secure but could conceivably fail at any moment.

To create a truly secure (and permanent) encryption method, we need a computational problem that’s hard enough to create a provably insurmountable barrier for adversaries. We know of many computational problems that seem hard, but maybe we just haven’t been clever enough to solve them. Or maybe some of them are hard, but their hardness isn’t of a kind that lends itself to secure encryption. Fundamentally, cryptographers wonder: Is there enough hardness in the universe to make cryptography possible?

In 1995, Russell Impagliazzo of the University of California, San Diego broke down the question of hardness into a set of sub-questions that computer scientists could tackle one piece at a time. To summarize the state of knowledge in this area, he described five possible worlds — fancifully named Algorithmica, Heuristica, Pessiland, Minicrypt and Cryptomania — with ascending levels of hardness and cryptographic possibility. Any of these could be the world we live in…

Explore each of them– and their implications for secure encryption– at “Which Computational Universe Do We Live In?” from @EricaKlarreich in @QuantaMagazine.

Charles Babbage


As we contemplate codes, we might we might send communicative birthday greetings to a frequentlyfeatured hero of your correspondent, Claude Elwood Shannon; he was born on this date in 1916.  A mathematician, electrical engineer– and cryptographer– he is known as “the father of information theory.”  But he is also remembered for his contributions to digital circuit design theory and for his cryptanalysis work during World War II, both as a codebreaker and as a designer of secure communications systems.



“The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency”*…


In a world full of smartphone payments and cryptocurrency, 85% of all transactions are still done in cash. Australia actually sees cash demand rising at a steady 6% to 7% per year with no decline on the horizon.

As printers and scanners become more sophisticated, the government has moved to ensure that its currency is safe. “What we noticed in recent years, with the availability of technology—particularly around reproduction technology like scanners and printers—counterfeiting in Australia had started to increase. We’re in the fortunate position where it’s still pretty low but it is rising,” says James Holloway, deputy head of note issue at Reserve Bank of Australia. “We thought we just don’t want it to keep rising in a sustained fashion, so the time had come around upgrading security”…

How Australia means to frustrate counterfeiters: “The Painstaking, Secretive Process Of Designing New Money.”

* Vladimir Lenin


As we bite our coins, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that President George Washington named Alexander Hamilton as the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.  A founding Father, Hamilton created the Federalist Party, the world’s first voter-based political party, the the United States Coast Guard, and the The New York Post newspaper.  As Treasury Secretary Hamilton stabilized the nation’s economy and paid back the mountainous debt resulting from the Revolutionary War.  He established the first national bank and created the U.S. Mint in (the precursor of) the form in which we know it today.



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September 11, 2016 at 1:01 am

“LOCK-AND-KEY, n. The distinguishing device of civilization and enlightenment”*…


The pursuit of lock picking is as old as the lock, which is itself as old as civilization. But in the entire history of the world, there was only one brief moment, lasting about 70 years, where you could put something under lock and key—a chest, a safe, your home—and have complete, unwavering certainty that no intruder could get to it.

This is a feeling that event security guard service experts call “perfect security.”

Since we lost perfect security in the 1850s, it has has remained elusive. Despite tremendous leaps forward in security technology, we have never been able to get perfect security back…

Joseph Bramah’s challenge lock: “The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 Guineas the moment it is produced.” 200 Guineas in 1777 would be about £20,000 today. The challenge held until 1851.

From the late 1770s until the mid-19th century, two British locks– the Bramah and the Chubb– offered their users unpickable security.  Then, at A. C. Hobbs, an American locksmith, attended The Great Exhibition—the first international exhibition of manufactured products– and destroyed that sense of security forever…


The “unpickable” Chubb Detector Lock

Read the remarkable Roman Mars’ account of security (and the loss thereof) in “In 1851, A Man Picked Two Unpickable Locks and Changed Security Forever“; hear it on his wonderful podcast, 99% Invisible.

* Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


As we reach for our keys, we might recall that it was on this date in 1953 that a different kind of lock was picked: Nature published a one-page article by James Watson and Francis Crick outlining the structure of DNA– te work for which the pair won a Nobel Prize in 1962.  (Their paper ran immediately ahead of one co-authored by Maurice Wilkins, who shared the Nobel award, in the same issue.)

 source (and larger, legible version)


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April 25, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”*…


As income and wealth inequality has grown in the developed world, so have the ranks of security guards—for gated communities, upscale residential buildings, corporate offices, exclusive events, and more. That trend– more inequality, more guards– seems especially apparent here in the U.S.  We now employ as many private security guards as high school teachers — over one million of them, or nearly double their number in 1980.  And that’s just a small fraction of what we call “guard labor.”  In addition to private security guards, that includes police officers, members of the armed forces, prison and court officials, civilian employees of the military, and those producing weapons: a total of 5.2 million workers in 2011– a far larger number than we have of teachers at all levels.

Samuel Bowles, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, and Arjun Jayadev, of the University of Massachusetts- Boston, explore these findings in their Opinionator piece “One Nation Under Guard.”

In America, growing inequality has been accompanied by a boom in gated communities and armies of doormen controlling access to upscale apartment buildings. We did not count the doormen, or those producing the gates, locks and security equipment. One could quibble about the numbers; we have elsewhere adopted a broader definition, including prisoners, work supervisors with disciplinary functions, and others.

But however one totes up guard labor in the United States, there is a lot of it, and it seems to go along with economic inequality. States with high levels of income inequality — New York and Louisiana — employ twice as many security workers (as a fraction of their labor force) as less unequal states like Idaho and New Hampshire.

When we look across advanced industrialized countries, we see the same pattern: the more inequality, the more guard labor. As the graph shows, the United States leads in both…

Bowles and Javadev conclude by quoting an august Utilitarian…

“It is lamentable to think,” wrote the philosopher John Stuart Mill, in 1848, “how a great proportion of all efforts and talents in the world are employed in merely neutralizing one another.” He went on to conclude, “It is the proper end of government to reduce this wretched waste to the smallest possible amount, by taking such measures as shall cause the energies now spent by mankind in injuring one another, or in protecting themselves from injury, to be turned to the legitimate employment of the human faculties.”

This venerable call to beat swords into plowshares resonates still in America and beyond. Addressing unjust inequality would help make this possible.

Read the whole piece here.  [TotH to The Society Pages]

*”Who will watch the watchmen” (or literally, “who will guard the guards themselves?”)  Juvenal, Satires (VI, lines 347–8)


As we shore up our defenses, we might recall that it was on this date in 1967, at the close of a show in Astoria (Finsbury Park, North London) that Jimi Hendrix first set fire to his guitar.  Hendrix was treated for minor burns later that night (but apparently got the technique down quickly, as subsequent “lightings” didn’t require medical follow-up).  The slightly scorched 1965 Fender Stratocaster was sold at auction in 2012 for £250,000 (about $400,00).



Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 31, 2014 at 1:01 am

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