Tuesday, October 27, 2015

So what is going on with all this hacking?

As many of you have heard in the past few months, a large number of US government agencies, major US retailers/companies, and credit reporting services have been hacked by persons unknown.

In this post, I hope to discuss with you why this is happening. (Again standard disclaimers apply - this is my own opinion, and not that of any others I may or may not know. If you heard it elsewhere, it was likely because it is all so bloody obvious that any fool - even myself can see it.)

For the past thirty years, the US Intelligence Community (USIC) devoted an extraordinary amount of resources to the creation of a giant sea of information. When you listened to stories from Edward Snowden, about Echelon, Pvt. Manning and Wikileaks etc... you were hearing garbled narratives about this sea. All that meta-data, real data, SIGINT, HUMINT, MASINT etc.. that the USIC collects via various channels is "fed" into this sea.

All those people that rail against the USIC for creating the sea are missing the point - life as we know it is impossible without such a sea. The sea is merely a physical manifestation of collective human knowledge which is otherwise stored in poorly-networked computers we call "our brains". We cannot run a society this global and complex without a better way of sharing common knowledge regardless of how "private" any one of us might feel it is.

After 9/11 the "feeds" to the sea became real-time and more numerous, and the size of the sea grew beyond imagination. All those stories you have heard about tunnel boring machines, underground bunkers, the airport and takeovers of stores etc... these are very common narratives that one comes across when building large server farms for shuffling around secure data. A secure data farm usually consists of a large building over/under ground and connected by tunnels which house secure data links. If you want to keep the data secret, you tend to air-gap the system.

In my travels through various parts of the world, I came across a number of people working on Quantum Information Processing (QIP). I saw the promise of QIP, the massive parallelism of a quantum information system making computation incredibly faster. I too believe QIP can make the human experience infinitely richer.  In my interactions with the QIP crowd, after hours and hours of talking, and peeling layer after layer of the lies that we physicists tell ourselves, I realized that QIP as it stood had little to do with my views on quantum mysticism and its benefits to society as a whole. I finally came to understand that QIP was about an elephant in the room i.e. without a massive increase in computational power, the sea of information so carefully collected is basically useless.

I also realized interest in QIP was a good way to track who faced this problem and given the nationalities of the various physicists working on the issue, I realized the problem was not unique to the USIC. People in other nations had similar problems and from the glee that I saw in their eyes when I spoke about QIP, I grasped that some countries actually desperately needed such processing merely to stay viable. I was stupid I hadn't realized that the burden that a large population and scarce resources can impose on a government. Without information there cannot be order, without order - civilized society will be impossible. 

In order to make this giant information sea useful one needs to be able to sort through an unsorted database and build indexes. Once the indexes are built, you need to construct a very fast correlation mapper that can distinguish between real data and noise. Above that level of code, you need a certain level of higher cognitive functionality which identifies threats based on the correlations that they present as.  

Some of this capability exists in the private sector. Without going into details I don't know, your credit card company uses a similar system to keep track of your purchases and detect fraud. However this capability cannot embrace the massive sea of information that the USIC has collected. The sea is simply too big to be managed with such small scale code. How to manage this sea remains a puzzle.

Various programs in the USIC have focused exclusively on different parts of this puzzle, some names like Able Danger are public, others obviously are not.  A very large amount of science fiction has been published about AIs and how they might view the world through the lens of correlation analysis, but until two weeks when an AI actually outperformed human correlation mappers, all this work was done by human hands - painstakingly and slowly. Not only is this mapping done by humans but security of the entire information sea and all its tributaries is in the hands of humans. There is a massive human element at play here.

Outside of any major computational failures - that human element remains the vulnerability in the system as it stands now. Compromising a human factor will most likely lead to an air-gap being bridged. Once the gap is bridged, a route to the sea will emerge and as demonstrated by the Snowden saga, a hyper-empowered individual will arise from the exploitation of that route.

This sea of information, the feeds that contribute to it and the analytical short-comings (human or AI) that prevent timely threat predictions, all add up and create the biggest vulnerability to national security in known history. This sea and everything associated with it is now a giant target for anyone with hacking capabilities. Every nation on earth will treat such it as a legitimate target for intelligence operations. Every private entity with an agenda or ambition for world domination will try to take a crack at it. The creation of this entity has sparked a global war in cyberspace. And as cyberspace increasingly connects all aspects of our lives, this war will become very real and hit very close to home.

If nation states succeed in keeping control over this sea and associated tributaries, then we will see the established order continue, although I imagine we may see major economic shifts as the resources needed to defend control over the sea are mobilized on a national scale. If private parties succeed where national forces fail, then we will slide into a world like that described in post-nationalist post-cyberpunk classics like Ghost in a Shell. If nations and private parties vie for power and fail to reach a decisive victory - then the future will be more dystopian. There is no limit to how dark it can get.

I hope this helps people in understanding what is happening. We are facing the greatest threat to humanity since the day the first atomic explosive device was demonstrated.

Perhaps if we understand the problem - we may be better placed to solve it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Does Pakistan have a viable plutonium implosion design?

A lot of attention has focused in the non-proliferation community recently on the Pakistani expansion in Plutonium production at their Khusab facility. But no one has asked the more fundamental question - does Pakistan possess a viable plutonium implosion design.

Before I begin a discussion on that, let me add the standard disclaimers - whatever I present is simply my view and not of any others I may or may not know. I have no intention of discussing what actually goes into a viable implosion design*, and the Pakistanis don't tell me what they are going to do.

I would also like to add, I completely believe Pakistani statements which describe nuclear weapons as option of last resort, and that Pakistan needs to be able to impose losses of the 10 Indians for ever 1 Pakistani level to ensure that its present national security paradigm is remotely viable.

In short - I do not grudge Pakistan anything in its production of Plutonium as long as the material is stored in a fashion that safe from interference. When Gen. Kidwai assures me that is actually the case, I am inclined to believe him.

That being said - like most rational people I feel absent a demonstration of an actual Pakistani warhead on an actual missile that leads to an over ground detonation of measurable yield and military effect - Pakistan's claims of nuclear prowess are more political than military in nature.

I am asking a simple question at this point - do they have a viable implosion design?

If they do not have a viable implosion design - there is nothing to worry about. 

If they do have a design for this - then a host of other questions need to be asked. Questions about stockpile maintenance and security that the Pakistanis will find highly invasive. If Pakistan doesn't answer these questions, then there will be a great deal of skepticism about their claims.

In order for Pakistan to claim it has a viable plutonium implosion device, it will have to engage in an exercise in transparency.

Perhaps Pakistan's entry into nuclear commerce groups should be gated by the results of such an exercise in transparency. That is all I have to say about that.

Naturally this approach can be applied to any claims Pakistan makes in the context of possessing boosted fission or radiation implosion related knowledge.

* A viable design is something like the CHIC-4 that the Pakistanis claimed to have gotten access to. Something that has been designed and tested in a weaponized configuration. The first Chinese design using plutonium is a CHIC-8.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Analysis of the Modi Landslide by Aatish Taseer

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/10/opinion/indias-great-educational-divide.html

Interesting article, but doesn't explain the contours of Modiji's victory. Aatish seems to be drawing a parallel between the Pakistani elite and the Indian one, I don't think it works like that. A fragment of the Indian elite are similar to their Pakistani counterparts, but because of India's sheer size this small fragment cannot influence the functioning of India in the same way that its counterpart in Pakistan does.

There is a divide in the Indian education system - English-medium v/s venacular medium schools. Children in English-medium schools run by national institutions like the Armed Forces, National Labs and Institutes etc... see a very diverse social environment compared to their cousins in the mofussil areas but this is often a consequence of where these labs and institutions are situated. As a result of this difference in social geography,  children who go to an English-medium school are given different tools to handle diversity than children going to vernacular-medium schools.

But desiring secular minded institutions has nothing to do with going to an English-medium school. FWIW - I know plenty of people who have gone to the same English-medium schools as I have and they strongly support Modiji.

Secularism is a concept deeply seated in Indian society, it is not something the British brought to India. Visibly secular institutions were a part of ancient Indian governance stretching back to the Mauryan age. Every Indian understands the need for secular institutions even if they find this Westphalian notion of India somewhat alien.

To me the Indian voter is more pragmatic than naive. There is a great sense of impatience in India - especially among the young people (the DCH- Dilli Chahta Hain/Indian Millenials generation) for economic progress. When Modiji presented his visions of national renewal before them, the DCH fell under his sway. Everyone acknowledged that visible secularism was desirable, but Modiji was able to present his way of doing things as a more optimal balance between the needs of visible secularism and meaningful national economic progress.

This IMO is where the real risks like. 

This is where I feel the Indian voters will discover they have been duped.

Sacrificing visible secularism has two very nasty consequences:

-  firstly it vents a very nasty undercurrent of sectarian hatred that flows perennially under the social surface. As this hatred surfaces it burns everything in its path creating a kind of scorched society which never truly recovers from its pain.

- secondly, it creates a mistaken impression that the needs of visible secularism and national economic progress are divergent and that a strong leader is essential to reconciling this (i.e. the Furherprinzip)

These nasty consequences have played a vital part in the trajectory of various failed states including Nazi Germany, Rwanda-Burundi, Afghanistan, Cambodia etc...

Right now India needs raw capital resources to build infrastructure for its growth. Without that there will be no economic progress. India must now delicately couple capital inflows to a large number of infrastructure projects in a way that the capital is secure from risks. The risk has to be spread over a large number of real estate centric investments.

At this point if India's PM says - "to hell with secularism - just get a hold of enough land to force through the infrastructure development needed by the nation" - then we will see an outbreak of rioting in the entire country as Hindus seize Muslim lands in Hindu majority areas  - and vice versa. This is the kind of thing that went on during the partition. It will happen again. We will see comparable levels of violence. That level of violence will deter investors from putting money into India, as they will not be able to guarantee that their investments will survive over the planned time frame.

So far India has not slid into this abyss because the quantum of investment needed has been so large that the Modi regime has been forced to look abroad for sources. International sources have indicated that they want real meaningful security for their investments, this means the "to hell with secularism" phrase cannot be uttered right now. That is why the Hindu-far-right have been held on a tight leash.

However - this state of affairs cannot continue for long. The international investors will eventually pony up the cash the Modi government wants. And the Hindu-far-right will not be held down for an infinite time - they will eventually lash out at Muslims. The only thing that the Modi government will do at that time is sanctify the behavior of the Hindu-right-wing as essentially economically productive. This is the same situation that Hitler found himself in - either lose control or create an environment where the anti-Jewish sentiments could expressed in a legally sanctioned fashion.