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Kobani Today, Krakow Tomorrow

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Syria’s Kurds, who fought heroically against the Islamic State for years—only to be abandoned following President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops—are now under attack from a Turkish invasion designed to carve out a 20-mile buffer zone in northern Syria. Pounded by artillery barrages and airstrikes, with the civilian population victimized by atrocities committed by Ankara-backed militias, Syria’s Kurds have one more reason to invoke the ancient Kurdish lament: “We have no friends but the mountains.” 

Now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to transfer a significant portion of the refugees from other parts of Syria currently living in Turkey into this zone in an effort to manipulate the demographics of the region and lessen domestic political pressures as resentment of refugees rises.

Trump’s decision is obviously a regional strategic disaster. The Syrian Kurds, having fought to defeat the Islamic State, have now been thrown to the wolves. The White House has abandoned not only reliable and steadfast military allies but also any serious effort to guard the tens of thousands of Islamic State prisoners whom European countries are refusing to take back, put on trial, or deradicalize. 

It “worries us enormously” that the Islamic State “could refind its breathing space inside that territory,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said earlier this week. Her designated successor, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, wrung his hands as if he was responding to the obvious follow-up question: What are you going to do about it? “We don’t have magic powers,” he lamented. British diplomats reportedly even chafed at the use of the word “condemn” in a communique on Turkey’s offensive.

European leaders seem to have forgotten that the lesson from the Balkan wars of the 1990s is that the rules-based international order is defended not though magic powers but by being able to deploy military force to deter and punish aggression. 

“If the American troops wouldn’t have withdrawn, this attack would have been impossible. The American troop withdrawal was a condition in order to make the attack possible,” Borrell added. He did not mention the obvious: There were no European troops ready to replace the departing Americans, and there was no will to use them even if had they been available. 

Lacking the will and deployable manpower to swiftly step into a power vacuum, Europe has been reduced to an impotent spectator. Now it is Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad who have filled the void, styling themselves as the Kurds’ protectors and guarantors of regional stability.

The damage to European security from a possible Islamic State revival after Trump’s capricious Syria withdrawal is far from the most alarming implication for Europe. He has turned the deterrent power of the United States into a massive indirect protection racket.

Anyone who depends on the United States for its security has been put on notice: Serve Trump’s personal agenda (by fabricating corruption investigations into his rivals’ children, for example) or you’re on your own. 

This should send a chill down the spines of Eastern Europe’s leaders. The Baltic states could easily be overrun by Russia. And Poland, where the just-reelected Law and Justice government has failed to maintain military readiness, now has to wonder whether it can rely on Washington.

Warsaw has tried flattery by inviting 3,500 U.S. troops to what was almost named “Fort Trump,” and Poland, much poorer than the United States, has offered to pay some of the costs. But there were 2,000 U.S. troops actually fighting alongside the SDF against the Islamic State. If the going gets tough, what is Trump more likely to do: have the 3,500 troops stand their ground, or threaten to pull them out in order to extort more from Poland?

Trump’s pullout from Syria is a tabloid-friendly illustration of the consequences of three decades of European security free-riding. After the end of the Cold War, the United States lost its strategic need to protect Europe. Europe may still be an economic superpower—able to impose global obligations on even the largest companies—but it is not a military superpower.

Wealth is only as good as the rules-based international order that upholds property rights, free trade, and market-based economic institutions. Or, in other words: That pile of gold is very useful—until the people with guns come and take it.

The EU is an economic superpower because it possesses the institutional structures to act together. The European Commission, not individual member states, sets trade policy. Individual members can’t be bought off, because they don’t make the relevant decisions, while the EU as a whole is too big to be pushed around. These lessons need to be applied to European defense before it’s too late.

Though the EU has been making progress—with permanent structured cooperation, the European Defense Fund, and now a new Directorate-General for Defense—Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds should serve as a warning. 

Without a shared defense policy, pooled military assets, and common military doctrine, the continent’s eastern flank will be vulnerable. This cannot be a matter of trading off the interests of Mediterranean countries, which face the consequences of instability and state failure in North Africa and the Middle East, with those of the Baltic states and Poland, which are justifiably concerned by Russian aggression. 

A Europe with fully integrated European defense policy, acting on behalf of a unified bloc of nearly 500 million people and $15 trillion of annual GDP after Brexit, would be able to take the initiative in international crises, not simply be buffeted by them. It could have deployed forces to replace the U.S. troops in Syria and used its strength to broker peace talks. A Europe without that power is just a fat goose waiting to be plucked.

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5 days ago
Global peace is not natural and normal. It is the product of institutions, organizations, and societies. By electing a loose cannon to a powerful office, we voters have severely undermined the global peace. The Kurds are now paying the price for our folly. And I only hope that we can reverse course before more cracks emerge in the order on which lives across the world depend on.
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NYT: ‘Trump Followed His Gut on Syria. Calamity Came Fast.’

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David Sanger, writing for The New York Times:

President Trump’s acquiescence to Turkey’s move to send troops deep inside Syrian territory has in only one week’s time turned into a bloody carnage, forced the abandonment of a successful five-year-long American project to keep the peace on a volatile border, and given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and the Islamic State.

Rarely has a presidential decision resulted so immediately in what his own party leaders have described as disastrous consequences for American allies and interests. How this decision happened — springing from an “off-script moment” with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, in the generous description of a senior American diplomat — likely will be debated for years by historians, Middle East experts and conspiracy theorists.

But this much already is clear: Mr. Trump ignored months of warnings from his advisers about what calamities likely would ensue if he followed his instincts to pull back from Syria and abandon America’s longtime allies, the Kurds. He had no Plan B, other than to leave. The only surprise is how swiftly it all collapsed around the president and his depleted, inexperienced foreign policy team.

I’m starting to think this guy is a terrible president.

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7 days ago
It is all part of his PR strategy where he tries to distract people from his corruption by highlighting his own incompetence.
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The broken record: Why Barr’s call against end-to-end encryption is nuts

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The US, UK, and Australia want Facebook to hold off on end-to-end encrypting Messenger until they have a way to inject themselves into the conversation.

Enlarge / The US, UK, and Australia want Facebook to hold off on end-to-end encrypting Messenger until they have a way to inject themselves into the conversation. (credit: picture alliance / Getty Images)

Here we go again.

US Attorney General William Barr is leading a charge to press Facebook and other Internet services to terminate end-to-end encryption efforts—this time in the name of fighting child pornography. Barr, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, and United Kingdom Secretary of State Priti Patel yesterday asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to hold off on plans to implement end-to-end encryption across all Facebook Messenger services "without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens."

The open letter comes months after Barr said in a speech that "warrant-proof" cryptography is "extinguishing the ability of law enforcement to obtain evidence essential to detecting and investigating crimes" and allowing "criminals to operate with impunity, hiding their activities under an impenetrable cloak of secrecy." The new message echoes a joint communiqué issued by the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand (the "Five Eyes") from July, which stated:

…it is imperative that all sectors of the digital industry including Internet Service Providers, device manufacturers and others to continue to consider the impacts to the safety of children, including those who are at risk of exploitation, when developing their systems and services. In particular, encryption must not be allowed to conceal or facilitate the exploitation of children.

Facebook has played a significant policing role on social media, providing reports of child abuse imagery and attempts by offenders to groom children online to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 2018, for instance. And there is no doubt the child pornography problem has exploded in recent years. A recent New York Times report revealed that the number of images of sexual abuse of children has been growing exponentially over the past two decades, with investigators flagging over 45 million images and videos last year. Facebook's reports were 90 percent of the 18.4 million cases reported to NCMEC in 2018—a number double that of 2017 and 18 times greater than the number reported in 2014.

Barr and his cohorts noted that NCMCE "estimates that 70% of Facebook’s reporting—12 million reports globally" for content related to child sexual exploitation and terrorism "would be lost" if all Messenger traffic is protected by end-to-end encryption and Facebook cannot screen the content through its safety systems. "This would significantly increase the risk of child sexual exploitation or other serious harms," Barr and the others claimed.

The letter also broadened its message beyond Facebook to the entire tech industry, stating:

We therefore call on Facebook and other companies to take the following steps:

  • Embed the safety of the public in system designs, thereby enabling you to continue to act against illegal content effectively with no reduction to safety, and facilitating the prosecution of offenders and safeguarding of victims;
  • Enable law enforcement to obtain lawful access to content in a readable and usable format;
  • Engage in consultation with governments to facilitate this in a way that is substantive and genuinely influences your design decisions; and
  • Not implement the proposed changes until you can ensure that the systems you would apply to maintain the safety of your users are fully tested and operational.

There are some major problems with this plan. First, backdoored encryption is fragile at best and likely to be quickly broken. Second, encryption is available in enough forms already that blocking its use by major service providers won't stop criminals from encrypting their messages. If secure encryption is a crime, only criminals will have secure encryption—and it will be really easy to be a criminal, since all it takes is a download or some simple mathematics.

The stupid criminal argument

Much of the reasoning behind the need to prevent end-to-end encryption by default—an argument used when Apple introduced it as part of iMessage and repeated multiple times since—is that criminals are inherently stupid, and giving them protection by default protects them from being stupid and not using encryption.

Facebook has offered end-to-end encryption as an option for Messenger conversations for years now, and it offers the service as part of WhatsApp as well. But because encryption requires an extra (and non-intuitive) step to turn it on for Messenger, most people don't use it—apparently even criminals sending messages they think aren't under surveillance. It's like the Dunning-Kreuger effect in that case—the belief is that criminals think they're "using the juice" and it's concealing them from being observed.

The problem is not all criminals are idiots. And while Facebook may have contributed massively to the reporting of child pornography in recent years, there are other services that even the idiots could move to if it becomes apparent that they're not out of sight. Take Telegram, for instance—where much of 8chan moved to after the site lost its hosting—or WhatsApp or Signal, which provide end-to-end voice and messaging encryption. On top of those, there are a host of "dark Web" and "deep Web" places where criminals, including those exploiting children, operate.

Based on conversations I've had with researchers and people in law enforcement, there is a significant amount of tradecraft related to these types of crimes floating around in forums. Not all of it is very good, and people get caught—not because they didn't have end-to-end encryption but because they used it with the wrong person.

Laws don’t change mathematics

Four years ago, when the focus was on catching terrorists instead of child pornographers, then-FBI Director James Comey decried the "cynicism" toward government spying and insisted that mathematicians and computer scientists just hadn't tried hard enough to create encryption with a "golden key" for law enforcement and intelligence organizations. But as I pointed out then, all you have to do is look at what happened when the US government tried to push backdoored encryption onto phone communications in the 1990s to understand why a government-mandated backdoor would be risky at best. As Whitfield Diffie (half of the pair who brought us the Diffie-Hellman Protocol for encryption key exchange) put it in 1993 when warning against implementing key escrow and the "Clipper Chip":

  • The backdoor would put providers in an awkward position with other governments and international customers, weakening its value
  • Those who want to hide their conversations from the government for nefarious reasons can get around the backdoor easily
  • The only people who would be easy to surveil would be people who didn't care about government surveillance in the first place
  • There was no guarantee someone else might not exploit the backdoor for their own purposes

To reinforce these points, a group of leading computer science and cryptography researchers—including some who actually broke the Clipper Chip's key escrow scheme in 1997—published a paper in 2015 warning yet again against government backdoors in encryption. These researchers noted they could create vulnerabilities in systems exploitable by people other than warrant-bearing, lawful searchers:

The complexity of today's Internet environment, with millions of apps and globally connected services, means that new law enforcement requirements are likely to introduce unanticipated, hard-to-detect security flaws. Beyond these and other technical vulnerabilities, the prospect of globally deployed exceptional access systems raises difficult questions about how such an environment would be governed and how to ensure that such systems would respect human rights and the rule of law.

The math and science of encryption has not stopped government from trying to change the rules, however. While Barr lacks the legal backing to force Facebook or other companies to comply with his demand, other members of the Five Eyes are pressing their fight against encryption with legal teeth.

Last December, Australia passed a law that mandates government backdoors into encrypted communications, dictating that service and application providers must be able to provide access on demand to individuals' messages. While a similar effort four years ago in the United Kingdom failed, the UK has mandated Web blocking technologies to fight child pornography and other content-oriented crimes—and the country could conceivably extend that blocking to companies that provide encrypted communications seen as a means for trafficking child exploitation.

Other tools in the bag

In many ways, the arguments about end-to-end encryption seem moot—considering that law enforcement and intelligence organizations already have so many other ways to watch for illicit activities and target suspects. DNS traffic, targeted warrants, and other legal vehicles to gain access to accounts (as with the still-active PRISM program), the targeting of hidden services on Tor (as with the CyberBunker 2.0 bust last month), and end-point hacking all give officials a lot to work with without having to break the rest of the Internet in the process.

While fighting child exploitation, terrorism, or any other fundamental evil is vitally important, the risks posed by banning encrypted communications between citizens, customers and businesses, journalists and sources, whistleblowers and lawyers, and every other legal pairing of entities who may have some need to communicate in confidence are too high to justify mandating an untenable, universal, extraordinary level of access for government to communications.

Every US presidential administration for the past 50 years has demonstrated in some way why we should be concerned about abuse of surveillance powers. And we know from Edward Snowden just how expansive those powers have grown. That's part of the reason that Internet services have moved so decisively toward providing end-to-end encryption and removing themselves from the surveillance apparatus.

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17 days ago
If we are going to bring up children, criminals could be taking advantage of weak encryption to listen in on our children right this second. Do you want to leave your children vulnerable to criminals by leaving encryption weak?
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YouTube demonetizing videos where LGBTQ keywords are said

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YouTube denies that it punishes users simply for being queer or using queer terms. But users of the platform are putting it to the test and finding many such phrases that will lead to automatic demonetization.

"We tested 15,296 words against YouTube's bots, one by one, and determined which of those words will cause a video to be demonetized."

It seems quite damning, especially the tests showing videos being remonetized after removing LGBTQ keywords.

Above, "YouTube Analyzed" publicizes the list of terms suspected to trigger the bot. ("This list should not be viewed as "banned words on youtube... This list should be used as a reference, when trying to figure out why a video is [demonetized]")

Below, a clever youngster posted a video where he utters just a few LGBTQ keywords: "LGBTQ, queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, homosexual". Though he's not monetized in the first place, he reports that the video soon acquired an "ineligible for monetizing" icon not on his other uploads.

Last month, The Verge reported on YouTubers that sued the company over discrimination it claims does not exist. Pink News found similar outcomes in a survey.

YouTube denied that words describing the LGBT+ community cause videos to be demonetised in a statement. They said they are “constantly evaluating our systems to help ensure that they are reflecting our policies without unfair bias”.

A denial, but also an aftertaste of "we don't entirely know what our automated systems are up to."

The underlying implication is YouTube's created a system that excludes content advertisers don't want to be associated with--perhaps a rushed response to the 2017 moral panic over the grotesque trash YouTube was running ads against. Now that this system exists, advertisers get a crude tool for content exclusion, and YouTube gets a lesson in unintended consequences.

Tech companies sometimes like to hide behind the suggestion that algorithms—computers making automated decisions—can't be bigoted. This is a example that makes clear how empty that argument is, and how an automatic process can baldly reflect human bigotry.

Whether they feel responsible for their code's decisions is immaterial. They will be held responsible for it, one way or another.

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20 days ago
Those with power constantly look for ways to distance themselves from those who feel the consequences of their actions. Bureacracy of all kinds, 'customer representatives', even complaints departments and HR. These have dual purposes. Part of the appeal of 'AI' and 'ML' is that these can also serve this same distancing function. Diluting blame and distributing it away from those in charge to their underlings.
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Nobody Puts "Party Over Country"

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I hate this cable news brain saying. Nobody has that much allegiance to a "party" and concepts of "country" or "national interest" are too vague and abused to be meaningless, and in practice are usually closer to "what's good for General Motors is good for America" than "wow what if people didn't worry about paying for cancer treatment for their kids."

Mitch McConnell doesn't put "party over country," he uses political power to get what he wants in ways some people find distasteful and other people cheer.

If people are bad it isn't because of party allegiance. They might be concerned with their individual fortune as it is linked to various things, but nobody cares about The Party. They're bad people who are using and maybe abusing power. This is dumb.

...adding that this is just another version of "The problem with Washingonton is TOO MUCH PARTISANSHIP" which is about 3 centimeters away from "The problem with Washington is TOO MUCH DEMOCRACY." Bad people who are bad is the problem.
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22 days ago
Wow. It is startling to hear somebody on the left rehabilitating Mitch McConnell. 'Using political power to get what they want in ways some people find distasteful and other people cheer' is the definition of being a politician. You could apply this label to every President, Senator, and Representative in the past thirty years.

Analyzing power relations and privilege is an important endeavor. But when you distill the world down to just those power relations, you have lost a lot of the force of your argument. It becomes 'I want more power myself' or 'Those with power are not using it as I would prefer'. To have weight, your arguments need to be based on a framework of proper distribution of power and proper use of power. You need to have principles like 'politicians should never put their own or party interests above the national good'. Where these principles are accepted, analysis of power can help show whether somebody is abusing power or hoarding power and should therefore be considered corrupt. When you simply dismiss these principles out of hand, you are reduced to something more like stating your personal preferences rather than condemning abuse.
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By The Whelk in "It's a joke" on MeFi

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If cancel culture was real then why are all these guys who sexually assaulted people for years still multi-millionaires? If cancel Culture is real then why is Sean spicer on dancing with the stars?

Or, to paraphrase twitter, if Cancel Culture was real then why do I have to hear about pew dew pie every 6 months
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25 days ago
It is real in that online outrage is easy to cultivate and follows any perceived or real injustice. It is not real in that online outrage is not an effective tool of social change. Both on the micro scale (the companies and people stick around and stay wealthy and famous) and at the macro scale (changing societal patterns). The Internet can be a tool to organize real world action. But often it becomes a way of sublimating real world action by venting your rage at the bad thing online and then doing nothing in the real world. More and more the targets of online rage are learning that generally you can ignore the online rage whereas before some responded because they thought it was the harbinger of real world action. Maybe this is inevitable. Remember that there was a time when printing leaflets and handing them out on the corner was considered a radical act while now it seems impossible that such a thing could provoke a revolution. Internet rage seems to be following the same trajectory.
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