A Police State Takes Hold in Venezuela

Many people expected that after his painful electoral defeat in the constitutional referendum last year, Hugo Chávez was going to stop his systematic assault against democracy and civil liberties in Venezuela.

Last week, he decreed a new intelligence law (no need for a National Assembly here) that basically turns Venezuela into a police state. The new law requires that people:

“… comply with requests to assist the agencies, secret police or community activist groups loyal to Mr. Chávez. Refusal can result in prison terms of two to four years for most people and four to six years for government employees.”

The law also stipulates that the police agencies can conduct surveillance activities on the population, like wiretapping, without a warrant. Furthermore, the authorities can deny access to evidence to defendant lawyers under the grounds of “national security.”

It’s interesting how people sympathetic to Chávez around the world, but particularly in Latin America, call anyone who criticizes their beloved leader a “fascist.” They fail to recognize that many of his policies, especially laws like this one, have fascism written all over them.

Freedom Is Diversity …

… in the communications world.

This recent TechKnowledge article by James Plummer makes the case for more freedom in the use of the radio spectrum. This will bring more voices to the media marketplace, fostering competition and diversity in ideas and culture.

“Low-Power FM: Freedom is Diversity” concludes: “The FCC and Congress are both poised to further open up the FM spectrum. Both should ignore the pleadings of special interests on all sides as they do so. “

Privacy Legislation vs. Google’s Homepage

Google stands accused of violating the California Online Privacy Protection Act of 2003, which requires Web sites and online services to “conspicuously post” their privacy policies.

It’s obvious to some that this requires Google to have a link on its homepage to its privacy policy, but the law says that online service providers can use “any other reasonably accessible means of making the privacy policy available for consumers of the online service.” In the case of Google, one might consider … a search?

But I think this little episode has a deeper lesson. It reveals the thoroughgoing incapacity of lawmakers and advocates to be social engineers. Linking to privacy policies on home pages was an experiment that failed long ago. People don’t read them. People who are interested in reading them can find them so long as they’re placed sensibly somewhere on a Web site.

In their voluntary transactions, if people want privacy, they’re gonna seek it (and, though it’s tough, often get it); if they’re indifferent, they’re not. Mandated privacy notices – especially the placement of them – are a sideshow.

Defining Success Down, Massachusetts Style

Health Affairs has just published a new study of the Massachusetts health care plan by Urban Institute scholar Sharon Long. Media coverage has generally been positive, hailing the Massachusetts experiment as a success. But a closer look leads to a far less sanguine conclusion. Among other things, the study shows that:

  • Slightly less than half of Massachusetts’ uninsured population actually complied with the mandate. True, the number of people without health insurance was reduced from 13% of the state’s population to 7%, but when the bill was passed, advocates promised that “all Massachusetts citizens will have health insurance.” Perhaps it depends on your definition of “all.”
  • Most of those who are signing up are low-income individuals, whose coverage is fully or partially subsidized, proving once again that if you give something away for free people will take it. It certainly appears that it is the expensive and generous Massachusetts subsidies (up to 300% of the poverty level), not the unprecedented individual mandate that is responsible for much of the increased coverage.
  • Adverse selection remains a big problem, with the young and healthy failing to comply with the mandate. The state refused to change its community rating laws which drive up the cost of insurance for young, healthy individuals. Not surprisingly, they don’t find this a good deal.
  • The program is far exceeding its projected costs, with at least a 33% budget overrun in its first year.
  • The program has increased demand for health care services without increasing the supply of providers. As a result, patients are having trouble finding providers and waiting lists (Canada here we come) are beginning to develop.

If this is success, I would hate to see failure.

No End In Sight

According to this site, the Iraq correspondent Richard Engel’s book has some pretty startling words from the Commander-in-Chief in it. Try a few of these on for size:

  • “This is the great war of our times. It is going to take forty years,’” [Bush told Engel]. Bush said in forty years the world would know if the war on terrorism, and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, had reduced extremism, helped moderates, and promoted democracy.
  • Bush admits to Engel that going to war was a decision based on his personal instinct and not on any long-range strategy for the Mideast: “I know people are saying we should have left things the way they were, but I changed after 9/11. I had to act. I don’t care if it created more enemies. I had to act.”
  • Bush tells Engel that the election of Hamas was actually a positive development because it pressured Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas to make reforms: “I think the election of Hamas was a good thing. It proved to Abbas he was failing. I told Abbas, ‘You lost the election because you aren’t providing for your people, jobs, education, what people want.’ Now they know they have to compete.”

Looks like there will be lots to chew on in there. And we’ve got at least 35 or so more years to chew on it.

Cyber-Alarm!

Shane Harris’ National Journal cover story on the Chinese “cyber-invasion” is meant to alarm us. The story claims that Chinese hackers doing their government’s bidding are stealing our secrets and maybe felling our power grids. It quotes US officials comparing the consequences of cyber-attacks to those of nuclear weapons. The cover depicts a red dragon crawling on to an American shore. A subtitle sees “a growing threat.”

Don’t burn your wireless card yet though. There may be a US cyber-panic, but the Chinese cyber-threat is overblown.*

The most shocking and least plausible claim in the article is that Chinese hackers caused the massive blackout in 2003 and a recent power outage in Florida. I’m not an expert on cyber-security, so I’ll leave it to Bruce Schneier and Wired blogger Kevin Poulsen to attack this theory.

But anyone can see dodgy sourcing. Harris’ blackout scoop comes from the former president of something called the Cyber Security Industry Alliance who claims that he heard it from intelligence sources. In support of this contractor’s claim, the article quotes a bunch of federal officials paid to combat cyber-threats. They say, essentially, “Yes, it’s possible the Chinese did this, but we can’t say more.” Technical details aren’t included. It’s a secret, we’re told. The article only briefly discusses the very plausible explanations for both blackouts that don’t involve Chinese hackers. In the 2003 case, at least, that multi-causal story is backed by extensive investigations on the public record.

Another problem is the article’s uncritical acceptance of the claim that the Chinese government employs a hacker militia to attack US websites. No evidence is offered beyond the assertions of an intelligence official employed to combat cyber-threats, a security contractor who works for such officials, and one consultant / analyst. No doubt there are lots of Chinese hackers breaking into US networks. After all, there are lots of Chinese. But why should we believe that these hackers are agents of the Chinese state rather than bored teenagers in internet cafés? However malicious its intent, why would the Chinese government want to outsource its espionage to a bunch of underemployed programmers?

The story also reports on several Chinese efforts to steal information from US corporate executives and government officials. These stories are plausible – but two caveats could have been highlighted. First, our military and intelligence agencies almost certainly hack into Chinese networks and steal information. Second, there is no official claim in this story or elsewhere, despite all the sound and fury, that Chinese hackers have broken into classified US networks and gathered useful information.

Finally, the story should have quoted someone pointing out the absurdity of the claim made by Vice Chairman of Joint of Staff Gen. James Cartwright that cyber-attacks are comparable to weapons of mass destruction attacks, which means nuclear explosions, among other things. By most definitions, cyber-attacks have been going on a long time. They have killed either no one or almost no one. Yes, one can imagine scenarios where hackers trigger mass casualties. But equating these outlandish what-ifs to a nuclear weapon is either an assault on the meaning of “mass destruction” or threat inflation of first order. (I say this despite an article/ heroic epic in the same magazine depicting General Cartwright as a kind of cross between Napoleon and Jack Welch.)

I keep reading about the cyber-war we’re supposed to be fighting with China. Reading this story, I don’t see it. There are evidently a lot of Chinese hackers (not necessarily government-sponsored), and a bunch of Chinese electronic espionage (not necessarily successful). That’s a problem, not a war.

For a sober take on these matters, read James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

*I’m usually a fan of the National Journal and Shane Harris’ writing in it, so I chalk this up to an off-week.