Category Archives: uk
With the controversy over the US and its allies adopting Huawei kit generating more heat than light, I think perhaps it’s time to don my mathematician’s hat and take a look at what could and couldn’t really be at stake here. Who could be spying on us, and how?
Much of the commentary on this is on the level of legislating the value of pi. That is to say, a fundamental conflict with basic laws of nature. At the heart of this is Trump’s ranting about China spying on us: the idea that a 5g router (or any other infrastructure component) could spy on his intelligence services’ communications is on the level of worrying about catching cold from reading my blog because I sneezed while writing it.
At least, a router acting on its own. A router in collaboration with other agents could plausibly be a different story, but more on that later.
To set the scene, I can recommend Sky’s historical perspective: Huawei’s 5G network could be used for spying – while the West is asleep at the wheel. This looks back to the era of British domination of the world’s communications infrastructure, and how we successfully used that to eavesdrop German wartime communications. It also traces the British company involved, which was bought by Vodafone in 2012.
Taking his lesson from history, Sky’s correspondent concludes that if the Brits and the Americans could do it (the latter a longstanding conspiracy theory more recently supported by the Snowden leaks), then so could the Chinese. Of Huawei (a private company), he says:
[founder] Ren Zhengfei … has said his firm does not spy for China, and that he would not help China spy on someone even if required by Chinese law.
Personally, I’m inclined to believe him.
But it may also be a promise he is unable to keep, even if he wants to. The state comes before everything.
which might just be plausible, with the proviso that it would risk destroying China’s world-leading company and a powerhouse of its economy.
But the historical analogy misses one crucial difference in the modern world. Modern encryption. Maths that emerged (despite the US government’s strenuous efforts to suppress it) around the 1980s, and continues to evolve, while also being routinely used online, ensures that traffic passing through Huawei-supplied infrastructure carries exactly zero information of the kind historically used to decrypt cyphers, such as (famously) the Enigma. Encryption absolutely defeats the prospect of China doing what Britain and America did. And – particularly since Snowden – encryption is increasingly widely deployed, even for data whose security is of very little concern, such as a blog at wordpress.org.
Unless of course the encryption is compromised elsewhere. The spy in your ‘puter or ‘phone. Or the fake certificate that enables an imposter to impersonate a trusted website or correspondent. These are real dangers, but none of them is under Huawei’s (let alone the Chinese government’s) control or influence.
Looking at it another way, there’s a very good reason your online banking uses HTTPS – the encrypted version of HTTP. It’s what protects you from criminals listening in and stealing your data, and gaining access to your account. The provenance of the network infrastructure is irrelevant: the risk you need to protect against is that there is any compromised component between you and your bank. Which is exactly what encryption does.
So why is the US government attacking Huawei so vigorously, not merely banning its use there but also threatening its allies with sanctions? I can see two plausible explanations:
- Pure protectionism. Against the first major Chinese technology company to be not merely competitive with but significantly ahead of its Western competitors in a field. And against the competitive threat of 5G rollout giving Europe and Asia a big edge over the US.
- The US intelligence agencies’ own spying on us.
OK, having mooted (2), it’s time to return to my earlier remark about the possibility of a router collaborating with another agent in spying with us. The spy in your ‘puter or ‘phone. There’s nothing new about malware (viruses, etc) that spy on you: for example, they might seek to log keypresses to steal your passwords (this is why financial institutions routinely make you enter some part of your credentials using mouse and menus rather than from the keyboard – it makes it much harder for malware to capture them). Or alternatively, an application (like a mailer, web browser, video/audio communication software, etc) encrypts but inserts the spy’s key alongside the legitimate users’ keys: this is essentially what the Australian government legislated for to spy on its own citizens.
But such malware, even when installed successfully and without your knowledge, has a problem of its own. How to “phone home” its information without being detected? If it makes an IP connection to a machine controlled by the attacker, that becomes obviously suspicious to a range of tools in a techie’s toolkit. Or for non-techie users, your antivirus software (unless that is itself a spy). So it’ll have a pretty limited lifetime before it gets busted. Alternatively, if it ‘phones home’ low-level data without IP information (that’ll look like random line noise to IP tools if they notice it at all), the network’s routers have nowhere to send it, and will just drop it.
This smuggling of illicit or compromised data to a clandestine listener is where a malicious router might conceivably play a role. But for that to happen, the attacker needs a primary agent: that spy in your ‘puter or ‘phone. If anyone’s intelligence service has spyware from a hostile power, they have an altogether more serious problem than a router that’ll carry or even clone its data.
And who could install that spy? Answer: the producers of your hardware or software. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook have software installed on most ‘puters and ‘phones. Some of that is P2P communications software like Microsoft’s skype or Facebook’s whatsapp, that should be prime vehicles for Aussie-style targeted espionage. If anyone is in a position to spy on us and could benefit from the cooperation of routers to remain undetected, it’s the government who could lean on those companies to do its bidding. I’m sure the companies aren’t happy about it, but as the Sky journalist said of Huawei, “it may also be a promise he is unable to keep, even if he wants to. The state comes before everything”.
China’s presence in any of those markets is a tiny fraction of what the US has. Could it be that the NSA made Huawei an offer they couldn’t refuse, but they did refuse and the US reaction is the penalty for that? It’s not totally far-fetched: there’s precedent with the US government’s treatment of Kaspersky.
And it would certainly be consistent with the US government’s high-pressure bullying of its allies. The alternative explanation to pure protectionism is that they don’t want us to install equipment without NSA spyware! The current disinformation campaign reminds me of nothing so much as Bush&Blair’s efforts to discredit Hans Blix’s team ahead of the Iraq invasion.
 I’m inclined to believe the Snowden leaks. But I’m well aware that anything that looks like Intelligence information might also be disinformation, and my inclination to believe it would then hint at disinformation targeted at people like me. So I’ll avoid rash assumptions one way or t’other. Snowden’s leaks support a conspiracy theory, but don’t prove it.
When David Cameron resigned, I said here that his successor would come in for a lot of blame. And indeed, it has come to pass: Mrs May is getting the greater part of the blame for the mess brexit inevitably became. Much of her party wants her to resign, and she’s indicated she may do so – albeit as a form of bribe to her party.
But who would want her job now? There’s still a lot of blame to come, and our next prime minister won’t be popular for long either, no matter what he or she may do. There might be someone among the more swivel-eyed loons with delusions, but the Party Establishment can surely see them off.
There’s one obvious candidate. He’s in a position somewhat akin to May in 2016: of an age where if he doesn’t get the job now, he’ll be too old to be considered for it. And every party in parliament – including his own – would just love to see him fall flat on his face, and take the major share of the blame for brexit fallout. He is of course opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.
And he’s also in a corner. Give him an election and, unlike the tories, he really can’t afford not to fight it to win.
So the question is, how to engineer it, and leave him (and the country) the most poisonous legacy possible. Well, they’re doing that by demonstrating that the tory party is just too dysfunctional and cannot govern. That’s three-birds-with-one-stone: it leads us by default to the worst possible brexit to poison the future; it helps precipitate an election, and it helps avoid winning that election. Genius!
“Michel Barnier has said Britain would get a better brexit deal if he were negotiating with himself”
— attributed to comedian Henning Wehn.
The sad thing is, the quip is probably true! The real problems lie not between the UK and EU, nor even between political parties here, but within the governing Tory party.
I’ve been meaning to write most of this post – less the above joke – for a long time. I think since last December, when they announced the ‘backstop’ agreement to the Irish border issue. An agreement that was never going to be acceptable to the hardliners, and looked set up as vehicle for pushing blame onto the EU when the UK started to mess with it. But if so, that looks to be failing, as it seems the hardliners eschew such a “double-cross them later” fudge and reject it now.
So what is standing in the way of an agreement? At the core of it are two red lines:
EU red line: the integrity of the rules and regulations that protect our people and other things we care about.
Brexiteer red line: we must not be bound by EU rules: they stand in the way of trade agreements.
OK, that’s a bit abstract. There’s exactly one trade agreement that’s at issue here, and (so far as I’m aware) just one set of EU rules that’s really relevant. The trade agreement is of course with the US, and the rules in question are food safety. Because the US red line that has prevented a big US-EU trade agreement over many years is their freedom to export to us a range of foods that are banned here. I don’t have the expertise to say who is right or wrong when it comes to America’s wide range of genetically modified foods, chlorinated chicken, or beef pumped full of growth hormone (though I’d want to avoid the latter myself if I ate meat in the first place), but we’ll have to accept them if we want that US trade agreement.
So that’s the UK importing all those foods, now legally. And the US exporting them in bulk. And with consequential issues: the US will want to prevent backdoor restraint of trade, so a US importer should have a clear case in law against a British supermarket that uses a labelling scheme (like red tractor) prejudicial to the imports. And that’s a problem for British farmers: how are they to compete if we hold them to higher standards? What happens to the countryside if we lower our own standards to help them compete?
The EU wants to keep them out. It knows there will be smuggling (as with illegal drugs), but we must at least seek to minimise it: confine it to the margins. In the absence of proper border checks, the only limit on smuggling is the capacity of transport links between Belfast and Dublin. Hence the problem over that Irish border.
And it seems the EU really are insisting on the open border if we’re to have agreement. They made concessions in aid of that at the outset: notably the declaration that the Irish border is a unique case, thus avoiding problems like the Spanish feeling the need to veto an agreement that would be unacceptable to them on the Gibraltar border.
Looks like stalemate. Who will blink?
Mrs May has tried to deal with that by preserving regulatory alignment on goods – including of course food standards. But the US lobbyists in her own party won’t stand for that. So unless she can beat them, probably with help from other parties in parliament, that’s going nowhere. And her compromise-attempt was wrapped in a package so convoluted as to present problems to more than just the hard-brexiteers.
Still looks like stalemate. Who will blink?
What about the brexiteer proposal that technology can be a solution? The only real question there is, why do our mainstream media allow such disingenuous distraction to stand? Technology might serve to implement a solution, but that can only happen if and when there’s a political solution to implement! Claiming it as a solution in itself is about as useful to that as supplying bikes to fish: its only purpose is to confuse the issue and throw a spanner in negotiations. I consider the failure to debunk it comprehensively to be Gross Negligence on the part of the mainstream media.
 I wonder if that even need have been true if our politicians hadn’t made such a big issue of the standards? If we could have honestly said to the US “our hands are tied”, might a maverick like Trump have moved his red lines (with, no doubt, some give-and-take elsewhere) in the interests of showing the world “look, we can have a trade agreement”?
News story: “upskirting” to be outlawed. Replaced by news story: “upskirting” bill scuppered by rogue MP. Cries of “shame”!
Background. This was a private members’ bill, motivated by a campaigner’s bad experience. The campaigner has clearly suffered a Bad Thing: an event that might be described as assault, with followup that looks like bullying or harassment. That she should have some remedy in law seems uncontroversial, even if two years prison seems disproportionate.
But does that really imply a whole new criminal offence? Looks to me like a cop-out. When we talk about Good Practice like one-in-one-out for new criminal laws, this is precisely the kind of thing we mean. Might it not be much more productive to review why existing laws dealing with assault, bullying and harassment had failed this victim? A proper review might do something for many victims whose equally-distressing bullying and harassment just hasn’t got media attention.
This stinks of Bad Law. And of Bad Processes for making law: it’s been cooked up behind closed doors without any opportunity for review by the representatives we supposedly elect to make our laws (so much for “democracy”). Perhaps if it had had proper (or indeed any) debate, someone would have pointed out that this was a Very Bad fix.
The campaigner is in the right: she should have some remedy. The backbencher who brought the bill is right-ish: a backbencher has no real remedies, and the outcome should have been to put it on the Government’s agenda. But for the Government itself to jump on this populist measure is a disgraceful failure in its obligation to deal with such obvious shortcomings in existing law. The hero of this case is the backbencher who stopped it and forced at least a debate. Must take courage to bring down the wrath of the Establishment and kneejerk media on yourself like that!
It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged any good rant about matters in the news here. It’s not that I don’t sometimes have things I could say, nor even that my words would be superfluous because the Chattering Classes in the mainstream media are already saying them. Rather it’s a lack of round tuits, and perhaps because I might sometimes post a rant elsewhere instead (for example, El Reg on predominantly techie matters).
So how better to try and restart than by blogging a positive story. One of those rare occasions where out government appears possibly to be doing the Right Thing about one of today’s most serious problems. I can’t find it on the BBC website (where I looked after hearing it on the radio), but Google finds it at the FT.
The story is rather different between the BBC and the FT, but the gist of it is that Michael Gove and/or the Department of the Environment (of which he is minister in charge) is at last considering proposals to clean up our air, by restricting or banning domestic wood and coal fires. These fires have become a huge problem in recent years. I believe they have standards about keeping their own house unpolluted, but for anyone who happens to live downwind of such fires, it can fill the house with smoke for extended periods: many hours a day, many months a year. We’re talking levels of smoke comparable to not one or two but a great many smokers in the house, and this is seriously nasty smoke that hasn’t gone through the considerable cleanup that’s been forced onto the tobacco industry in recent decades.
In summary, for people affected by this, it’s an order of magnitude worse than regular exposure to passive smoking, or to those diesel emissions that have created such a fuss in recent times.
Governments have occasionally been known to do the right thing on pollution. In the 1950s we had clean air legislation to clear up a reportedly-serious smog problem. In my lifetime we’ve rid ourselves of most of the blight of tobacco smoke (including legislation that has been very successful despite my reservations at the time). Let’s hope we can see the spirit of that 1950s legislation revived and give us back our air!
 The prevailing wind here is approximately west-south-west, and a very common winter weather pattern includes mild damp weather and very light westerly winds. So the greatest killer is to be between east and northeast of a woodburner.
So, which is more satisfying in today’s election results? A bloody nose for Mrs MegaloMayniac? Or a kick up the backside for the Labour party Establishment who loathe Corbyn as much as they hate democracy, and have spent a year and a half in civil war? All without delivering the other hypothetically-possible disaster of a Corbyn government.
A fly in the ointment is what the Coalition of Chaos that now looks likely may do to Northern Ireland. The DUP will want their price, and the Tories’ desperation will surely strengthen the hand of the more extreme elements in the DUP. Talk about setting a match to a powder keg!
(The title derives from here).
I was as surprised as anyone when our prime minister called a surprise election. OK, with Libdems knocked out in 2015 and Labour tearing themselves apart, she has no opposition in most of the country: she’ll walk it, right? But just after setting the clock ticking on brexit??? Good grief, how can we afford the time for this nonsense? Her policy platform looked like the progeny of an unlikely match of Farage and Miliband, with a touch more of Blairite authoritarianism that either of the main parents would seem likely to favour.
To state my own prior position, I was a strong supporter of Mrs Thatcher in my youth, but have become much-disillusioned with her successors, as browsing this blog (e.g. here) will reveal. I had hoped that the Libdems might come to the election with a positive programme I could support despite inevitable elements of gratuitous Political Correctness and the Loony Left, but they were quick to disappoint. Once again, I say None of the Above.
The justification seemed dodgy from the start, raising a strawman argument about being frustrated by … well, in fact, an exceptionally supine parliament. A couple of outright lies put my back up somewhat. But anyway, the Chattering Classes soon came up with some ideas: she wanted a personal mandate; she needed a big majority to stand up to the loony fringe of her own party. Really?
I live in a very marginal constituency, so I expected to be on the receiving end of some campaigning. The first I received on the doormat some weeks ago was a large glossy from which a mugshot of Jeremy Corbyn stared up at me. Interesting: Labour have got into gear commendably fast? Nope, this was Tory literature, featuring a bogeyman as its most important message.
When the (less-glossy) actual Labour leaflet followed, the only mugshot in it was the candidate himself. And a set of policies that read like a checklist of opposing everything the Tories are trying to do right. Ugh. No mention of Corbyn: is this candidate trying to dissociate himself from his own leader?
A second Tory letter – this time in an envelope – calls for a mandate not for my candidate, nor for the Party, but for Mrs May herself. Well, sorry, I can’t vote for that. Even if I wanted to live in Maidenhead (her constituency), I’ll never be able to afford it, so I don’t get the chance to vote either for or against her. But the message is becoming clearer than ever: we are to dispense with Parliament, relegate them to something more like a US-style electoral college, and crown our Supreme Leader. This cult of personality is not entirely new: perhaps we should be glad that she’s being more open about it than in the past? But coupled with her authoritarian leanings and secrecy over her agenda beyond the coronation, it scares me.
No more leaflets until last Friday, when a sudden flurry brought one each from the Libdems, UKIP, and an Independent, plus three more from the Tories for a total of five from them (good grief)! Only the Greens missing (perhaps they practice what they preach?), and sadly our Green party is solidly Loony Left. The Independent candidate actually has an anti-party platform I could strongly support (it’s distantly related to my own), but sadly falls down on other issues. And neither the Libdem nor UKIP feature their respective party leaders, so maybe I was being unduly cynical about Labour doing likewise.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Surprisingly, her bogeyman doesn’t seem to be doing the job of annihilating himself. Indeed, Corbyn is looking the most statesmanlike of a dreadful bunch, and his own party have suppressed their hatred for him and moved from attacking him to ‘clarifying’ what he says. The “strong and stable” and “coalition of chaos” slogans have come back to bite her as it becomes painfully clear she herself is more chaos than strength, and the latest image of Corbyn “naked and alone“(!!!) with all those Eurocrats sounds almost like panic. It’s obviously nonsense: brexit negotiations will be conducted by Sir Humphrey’s civil servants regardless of who wins the election. In the still-inconceivable event of Labour beating the tories, I expect their political master would be Sir Kier Starmer, KCB, QC, not Corbyn himself.
So Corbyn has momentum. How far can it take him? Not into government, but perhaps far enough to upset the master plan. We need a bigger rallying point than that mugshot. What do people respond to, fast? Not any new promises: messing with the manifesto is just more egg on the face. It’s got to be a real threat. Big enough to grab the headlines and the national conversation. And preferably focus attention on matters where We Beat Them in public trust.
Where can we find such a threat? Given the tight timescale, we’re never going to make it with a foreign power. But there are a fair few alienated idiots in Blighty, susceptible to being inspired by heroes like the biblical Samson. We’re told our security forces have thwarted no fewer than five terrorist attacks in two months between the Westminster Bridge attack (March 22nd) and the Manchester one (May 25th – being more than a month into the election campaign). That’s more than one a fortnight, so it’s unlikely to be long before a next attempt. If one of those gets through, we have our threat and out enemy to rally against, and of course security is precisely where both the parties and their leaders individually are very clearly differentiated!
With that in mind, it seems an extraordinarily convenient coincidence that Manchester happened when it did: surely the security theatre of raising the threat level and deploying troops on the streets would kill that momentum and distract the media from the manifesto fiasco? Against all expectations, it didn’t! Then we had London Bridge, and this time a firm No Nonsense message: playing directly to traditional strengths.
Of course suggesting a connection is deep into conspiracy theory. But for the security forces – who routinely prevent terrorist attacks – to have failed twice in such quick succession – is extremely unlikely to be purely random. Did someone quietly send 007 on a wild goose chase – like for instance looking for Russian influence in the election – and leave Clouseau in charge back home? No, that’s a bit far-fetched. A botched information system update disrupting communication among anti-terrorist forces would make far more sense. And since all the people concerned work on a need-to-know basis and only see small parts of the overall systems, no individual would actually know what was going on!
And just to add icing to the conspiracy, what if the botch messed with third-party systems that must access the anti-terrorist information system, like an airline’s passenger information? What unlikely account might the airline be able to give of it if they were unable to operate? No, ignore that, it’s too far-fetched: BA is much more likely to have been hit by their own botch, perhaps with the aid of the big thunderstorms we had on the Friday night.
Today’s terrorist attack in London seems to have been in the worst tradition of slaughtering the innocent, but pretty feeble in its token attempt on the more noble target of Parliament. This won’t become a Grand Tradition like Catesby’s papists’ attack.
But if we accept that the goal was slaughter of the innocent, then today’s perpetrator made a better job of it than most have done, at least since the days of the IRA, with their deep-pocketed US backers and organised paramilitary structure. His weapon of choice was the obvious one for the purpose, having far more destructive power than many that are subject to heavy security theatre and sometimes utterly ridiculous restrictions. Even some of those labelled “weapons of mass destruction”.
The car. The weapon that is available freely to everyone, no questions asked. The weapon no government dare restrict. The weapon that kills more than all others, yet where it’s so rare as to be newsworthy for any perpetrator to be meaningfully punished. Would the 5/11 plotters have gone to such lengths with explosives if they’d had such effective weapons to hand?
With this weapon, the only limit on terrorist attacks is the number of terrorists. No need for preparation and planning – the kind of thing that might attract the attention of police or spooks – just go ahead.
And next time we get a display of security theatre – like banning laptops on flights – we can point to the massive double-standards.
Our new Prime Minister famously said “brexit is brexit”. The general media responded straight away with “but what is brexit?”. OK, they’re onto the troubles with it. No need for me to say anything more. Right?
Well, something less than half-right. They’ve grasped the Humpty Dumpty nature of the word “brexit”. But they’ve failed miserably to follow through and consider the implications. Dammit!
So what’s the problem? Brexit is a coalition of differing views, ranging from on the one hand some who see it as an opportunity for more trade and more immigration (like Tim Martin, who had “vote leave” messages printed on beer mats at Weatherspoons, a chain of about 1000 pubs, predominantly big ones in city locations), right through to outright racists and xenophobes who won’t be satisfied until their streets are purged of anyone speaking foreign. Plus of course a general protest vote. No outcome is going to satisfy all the brexit voters. Indeed, it seems unlikely even to satisfy a majority.
So now a majority – the 52% – have a sense of victory and entitlement to their agenda. Among them, the outright racists have been making the most noise: within 24 hours of the result they’d screamed “traitor” at Boris (who had been so bold as to hint that brexit didn’t necessarily mean closing the doors to all immigration), and even at Farage. There were also posts in public fora prophesying blood in the streets if any doors remained open. How things have changed since Enoch Powell!
That’s an agenda claiming – and believing they have – a 52% electoral mandate, yet not really representing even the whole of the BNP/UKIP. Give them their isolationism and we can rapidly slip back to poverty, and with less food or energy security than even in the 1970s. Deny it to them and it seems most unlikely they’ll shut up.
Even the Tory party’s internal troubles, which the referendum was intended to deal with (hence the gerrymandering in favour of Out), seem unlikely to go away. Mrs May is making a valiant attempt by putting brexit leaders in charge, but some of the backbenchers will surely be back on the warpath as soon as there’s any whiff of compromise in the air.
Thought experiment. UK general elections give us a choice of several parties and candidates to vote for. A party that gets 40% of votes cast becomes a clear winner. If we voted 48% for the status quo (Tories) and 52% for all other parties, that would give the Tories the biggest landslide victory of any party in our history. And that’s how the referendum campaign was conducted: on the “in” side a lacklustre status quo, on the “out” side a coalition of different agendas each with utopian promises they had no expectation of having to deliver.
Well, we voted 52% for the array of promises that were “not the status quo”, and could be handing that 52% not to the mainstream opposition (Labour, or perhaps the SNP – the opposition party with a real mandate in its home turf) but to a loony-fringe party that happens to shout loudest.
And perhaps the worst of it? Whereas Tim Farron (libdem leader) promised to make it an election issue for positive reasons, Labour hopeful Owen Smith is doing exactly the wrong thing jumping onto that bandwagon with an entirely negative and condescending “you got it wrong” message. Cameron already alienated enough people to tip the balance, and Smith is consolidating that alienation. I hope Corbyn firmly beats him.
Once upon a long time ago, my dad told me about selling one’s soul to the devil. I think it must’ve been in connection with (a childrens version of) the Faust story, but the suggestion was that there were quite a few such instances.
The Devil would always cheat on his side of the bargain. The archetypal lawyer, he’d find loopholes in a literal interpretation of the text, and catch you out on them. You of course don’t stand a chance – unless perhaps you’re Goethe’s very metaphysical Faust, or maybe a modern sendup.
Today it seems Boris is caught. The charismatic, populist toff has all the attributes of a diabolical bargain, and in spades. Indeed, altogether more so even than Trump, from whose wildly successful campaigning style Boris has clearly taken inspiration.
The master plan was obviously a Boys Own scenario: come to power at the nadir of the the worst crisis since the 1970s (perhaps even the 1940s, at least in his dreams) and turn the country around. But that needed a scapegoat, to take the impossible (but eminently blameable) decisions that will now lead us to that low point. Cameron’s resignation today came too early for the master plan: he’s not going to be that scapegoat. So now it seems Boris has to take over too early and take that blame, or else chicken out at this obvious moment.
Oh, and though it’s not really the same story, I can’t resist a picture: