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.

Moral Responsibilities

The editors of the New Republic say we have a “moral responsibility” to invade Burma in order to distribute disaster relief. The editors observe that no one taken seriously is seriously advocating doing this and lament:

This is, put simply, an unacceptable abdication of our moral responsibilities. Even though our standing in the world has been severely diminished by Iraq, we should at least be debating intervention in Burma. There are, no doubt, many logistical complications and unintended consequences that would follow from such a policy. But there are also reasons why it should be a live option. The goal of such an intervention need not be regime change; it should simply be to make sure that a vulnerable population receives the supplies it desperately needs. Of course, if violating the sovereignty of a murderous regime happens to undermine that regime’s legitimacy, then that would not be such a terrible result. But this does not necessarily have to be our goal.

One should not, I suppose, be too surprised that this sort of slipshod advocacy still emanates from the epicenter of liberal imperialism, a publication that was as influential as any in urging the Iraq war on the American people. (Neither should the fact that its leadership attempted to make their non-apology apology for Iraq look magnanimous.) The piece’s curtsy at post-Iraq reality is even sort of endearing, in a child-like way.

Note also the focus not on the particular policy of invading and taking responsibility for disaster relief in Burma, but rather on the importance of “debating” such a policy. After all, the New Republic’s writers aren’t going to be the ones to invade the country and deliver the aid. Rather, the important question is whether the political climate will allow for TNR’s writers to churn out tough-minded and uncompromising articles that allow them to stretch their rhetorical legs yet still keep them within the beloved Broderian mainstream of American politics.

But maybe the most disappointing point of that paragraph is that instead of the rote “to be sure” formulation, the editors chose to dodge completely the substance of the policy they’re advocating for by using the more indirect “there are, no doubt, many logistical complications…” phrasing. Write what you know, guys.

Supreme Court Rules on Money Laundering

Interesting voting pattern in a Supreme Court ruling today.  Instead of the usual conservative & liberal voting blocs, we find Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg, Souter, and Stevens in the majority–while Breyer, Kennedy, Alito and Roberts dissent.

The case is called United States v. Santos and the issue was how to interpret the term “proceeds” in the federal money laundering statute.  The case was easy and should have been unanimous.  When a term in a criminal law is unclear, the defendant should get the benefit of the doubt, not the rule-making, rule-enforcing state.  That’s a legal doctrine called the “rule of lenity.”  Unfortunately, the Supremes do not apply that rule consistently.  Happily, the Court reached the correct outcome today.  Here’s the money quote from Scalia: “When interpreting a criminal statute, we do not play the part of a mind reader.”  The “we” in that sentence referred to the justices.  But that goes double for the individuals & business firms that are regulated by vague federal regulations.

The newest justices, Alito and Roberts, are showing their pro-state tendencies again. 

Medicare & the Mob

I blogged previously about University of Michigan law professor Jill Horwitz’s review of Medicare Meets Mephistopholes, a book by Cato adjunct scholar David A. Hyman.

Hyman and Horwitz are now mixing it up in an online debate over at the University of Pennsylvania Law Review’s PENNumbra.com.  Readers will find a good synopsis of Hyman’s book, as well as a good point-by-point critique.  Medicare’s critics will enjoy how Hyman likens Medicare – and many of its apologists – to mobsters.  Also available in pdf.

Only in England

Bureaucrats in the United Kingdom must be getting jealous that their French counterparts are getting all the attention, so they have gone above and beyond the call of duty to demonstrate unparalleled government stupidty. Security officials at Heathrow Airport barred a man from flying until he removed a t-shirt with an image of an armed robot. The Evening Standard (not The Onion) reports:

An airline passenger claimed that a security guard threatened to arrest him because he was wearing a T-shirt showing a cartoon robot with a gun. Brad Jayakody, 30, from London, said he was stopped from passing through security at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 after his Transformers T-shirt was deemed ‘offensive.’ …Mr Jayakody said the first guard started joking with him about the Transformers character depicted on his French Connection T-shirt. ‘ “Then he explains that since Megatron is holding a gun, I’m not allowed to fly,’ he said. ‘It’s a 40ft tall cartoon robot with a gun as an arm. There is no way this shirt is offensive in any way, and what I’m going to use the shirt to pretend I have a gun?

Travelers in the United States, needless to say, have no reason to be smug. The keystone cops at the Transportation Security Administration, after all, have become experts at confiscating such well-known terrrorist weapons as fingernail clippers and bottles of shampoo.

False Dichotomy

In general, I don’t care what appears on the pages of Parade magazine—everyone’s favorite newspaper insert—but lots of people probably read the thing so when it contains something totally off the mark it’s worth rebutting. This weekend’s edition included a little story on homeschooling, in which Century Foundation Senior Fellow Richard Kahlenberg said that a California appeals court decision prohibiting parents from homeschooling without official teaching credentials “pits those who believe parental rights are paramount against those who place a premium on well-educated citizens.”

Talk about your false dichotomies! Kahlenberg is probably right that many people who say homeschooling parents should be required to have state credentials do so in the name of “well-educated citizens,” but there is no connection between teacher certification and well-educated anything, nor between public schooling and good citizenship. Indeed, state control of education is no guarantee of any quality whatsoever. 

People who want the state to control homeschooling might truly believe that it will produce well-educated citizens, but there’s very little evidence to support that belief.