A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for March, 2018

The Scientific Method Doesn’t Prove Truth

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Yesterday I ranted about the tendency of individuals to use unspecific and subjective statements in political discourse. Today I want to rant about a similar tendency, the tendency of individuals to claim that something is scientifically proven (with the implication being that it has been scientifically proven true).

The scientific model involves a continuous cycle of making observations, thinking of interesting questions, formulating hypotheses, developing testable predictions, testing those predictions, and modifying the hypotheses based on the test results. If a test demonstrates that a hypothesis is false, the hypothesis can either be rejected or modified so that the cycle can continue.

The important thing to know about this cycle is that it never proves truth. A hypothesis might continue to be treated as true so long as no experiment shows that it’s false. But just because a lot of experiments have failed to show that a hypothesis is false, doesn’t prove that the hypothesis is true. A hypothesis might survive a million tests but that doesn’t mean it has been proven true. The 1,000,001st test could demonstrate that the hypothesis is incorrect, in which case it might be rejected entirely or modified based on the new information learned from the test and subjected to more tests.

Saying that something has been scientifically proven (true) doesn’t mean that that thing is true. It means that it hasn’t yet been proven false. While the difference between the two statements may appear to be subtle, it is important. The first statement makes a position appear unassailable, which is probably why so many people like to claim that their position is based on scientific truth. The second statement acknowledges the possibility that the basis of the position could be incorrect, which leaves the door open to changing positions based on new knowledge.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 30th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Posted in Science

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The Intercept Likes Getting Its Sources Caught

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Last years Reality Leigh Winner, who may have the most ironic name in history, leaked National Security Agency (NSA) documents to The Intercept. Instead of sanitizing the leaked documents, The Intercept staff just scanned them and posted them to their website. Since the documents weren’t sanitized, the NSA was able to use the watermark printed on the document by the printer to identify and arrest Winner.

Now another federal employee, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) by the name of Terry Albury, who appears to have leaked documents to The Intercept is sitting in a cage:

A request for a search warrant filed in Minneapolis federal court against Albury did not identify the news outlet, but a review by MPR News found the documents described in the search warrant that Albury leaked exactly match the trove of FBI documents posted by The Intercept.

In January 2017, The Intercept published a series titled “The FBI’s Secret Rules,” based on Albury’s leaked documents, which show the depth and broad powers of the FBI expansion since 9/11 and its recruitment efforts.

The Intercept made two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the FBI in late March 2016. The requests contained specific information identifying the names of documents that were not available to the public. In addition, the FBI identified about 27 secret documents published by The Intercept between April 2016 and February 2017.

“The FBI believes that the classified and/or controlled nature of the documents indicates the News Outlet obtained these documents from someone with direct access to them,” according to the warrant. “Furthermore, reviews of the FBI internal records indicate ALBURY has electronically accessed over two thirds of the approximately 27 documents via trusted access granted to him on FBI information systems.”

One of The Intercept’s FOIA requests, dated March 29, 2016, asked for copies of a specific document classified as secret. The document, titled Confidential Human Source Assessing, gives tips for agents on how to cultivate informants.

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that lists specific classified documents by title is going to kick off an internal investigation to discovery the individual who leaked the titles of those documents. It is also known that many federal agencies, especially those involved in law enforcement and intelligence, closely monitor their networks. They often know who accessed what file at what time. If a FOIA request comes in containing a list of specific documents by title and an agent has been found to access many of those documents without official cause, the internal investigation team is going to put two and two together.

The fact that federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies closely monitor network access is well known. Knowing that network monitoring can identify who accessed what documents at what time and that correlating that information with a FOIA request is a trivial matter, a news agency that regularly deals with leakers should know that issuing such specific FOIA requests is likely to put their source at risk of being caught.

Between Reality Winner’s case and this one, the Intercept isn’t establishing a good track record for itself. If I were a federal agent with information to leak, I certainly wouldn’t leak it to The Intercept.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 30th, 2018 at 10:00 am

No Meaningful Discussion Can Occur without Specifics

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One of my biggest pet peeves in political discussions is the number of unspecific and entirely subjective statements that get tossed around. For example, gun control advocates like to claim that they want common sense gun control laws but common sense is entirely subjective. What is common sense to me may not be common sense to you.

One person might believe that it’s common sense to prohibit private ownership of machine guns but not at all common sense to prohibit private ownership of semi-automatic firearms. Another person might believe that it’s common sense to prohibit private ownership of standard capacity magazines but not magazines with a capacity of seven or fewer rounds. Yet another person might believe that abolishing private gun ownership entirely is common sense.

If somebody claims that they want common sense gun control laws, they’re not presenting anything that can be meaningfully discussed. Without the ability to have a meaningful discussion, both sides of the aisle will end up making assumptions about the other and those assumptions will generally be the best case when a subjective statement is made by somebody with whom they agree and the worst case when a statement is made by somebody with whom they disagree. In the end both sides will just end up screeching at each other.

I used gun control as an example because I spend a lot of time writing about guns but what I’ve said is true of every political discussion. People will claim that they’re pushing a political agenda to make the nation a better place, guard the average person against the rich, help the poor reclaim their dignity, etc. But what qualifies as a better nation is subjective. What qualifies a person as poor, average, or rich is subjective. What qualifies as dignity is subjective.

Subjective statements should really be dropped in favor of specific proposals. To return to our gun control example, a gun control advocate could propose to implement a law that requires all firearm transfers to go through a federally licensed dealer in order to be legal or a ban on semi-automatic firearms with specific features. Since those are specific proposals, the pros and cons of those proposals can be debated. Instead of having to make assumptions about the other’s definition of a subjective idea, both sides can now discuss the specific proposal.

Unfortunately, I see no signs that political discourse in the United States will shift away from the subjective. All signs point to the opposite.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 29th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Posted in Politics

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Legalizing Parenting

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There is a long list of laws that shouldn’t be necessary. This law that will soon go into effect in Utah:

A new law legalizing free-range parenting will soon take effect in Utah allowing children to do things alone like travelling to school.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill on March 15, which takes effect in May.

The bill redefines “neglect” in Utah law so that kids can participate in some unsupervised activities without their parents being charged, a representative from the state confirmed to ABC News Monday.

Why does allowing children to walk to school unattended need to be a law? Because the government has declared itself the owner of all people in the nation and has used that power to decide what does and doesn’t qualify as childhood neglect. In many areas children playing unattended in parks or walking to school unattended are valid grounds for law enforcers to charge parents with neglect. It’s absurd considering that not too long ago I was playing with my friends around town and walking to school unattended and everybody consider it normal.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 29th, 2018 at 10:30 am

The FBI’s Dog and Pony Show

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The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) made a big stink about being unable to unlock an iPhone 5C, which led to a lengthy debate over whether or not phone manufacturers should be required to include a law enforcement backdoor in their devices. According to the FBI, it was powerless to unlock the phone and because of that terrorists, child pornographers, and other heinous individuals would be able to act with impunity. It turns out that the FBI may be been exaggerating its incompetency:

Additionally, the OIG also found that when then FBI Director James Comey swore up and down in Congressional hearings that there was no alternative but to force the issue in court—it wasn’t entirely true.

“We have engaged all parts of the US government to see, does anybody have a way, short of asking Apple, to do it, with a 5C running iOS9, and we do not,” Comey told Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) during a March 1, 2016 hearing.

However, the new OIG report reveals that by February 11, the head of yet another FBI group—known as the Remote Operations Unit—had been in touch with a vendor that “he worked closely with [who] was almost 90 percent of the way toward a solution that the vendor had been working on for many months, and he asked the vendor to prioritize completion of the solution.” In short, weeks before Comey’s testimony before Congress, the FBI actually did know of a technique that was nearly all the way there.

Why would the FBI lie about something like this? One reason is that government agents, unlike private individuals, are allowed to get away with lying during hearings. But the biggest reason is probably because the FBI wanted to expand the United States government’s overall surveillance powers. A law enforcement backdoor would enhance not only the FBI’s surveillance powers but also the Drug Enforcement Agency’s, Central Intelligence Agency’s, National Security Administration’s, and basically every other federal, state, and local agency’s. Technology that allows individuals to protect their privacy is directly at odds with a government’s desire to expropriate wealth from individuals.

Nobody will likely be punished for this lie, which means that the FBI will see no reason to lie again in the future. But it’s good to keep these cases in our back pocket to remind ourselves that every time a government agency claims it needs additional powers, the reasons it feeds us are likely bullshit.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 29th, 2018 at 10:00 am

We’re at the Mercy of Service Providers

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Yesterday I mentioned the changes Microsoft made to its terms of service and touched on the one sided licensing agreements to which users must agree in order to use Microsoft’s services. Today I want to take the discussion one step further by explaining the dangers these one sided agreements have to users integrated into entire company ecosystems.

Imagine that you, like many people, are heavily tied to Microsoft’s ecosystem. You have an Xbox 360 and an Xbox One. You play games online with your Xbox Live Gold membership. Your home computers all run Windows 10. You use Outlook.com for e-mail. You’re a developer who relies on Visual Studio to do your job and utilize One Drive and Office for online collaboration with coworkers. When you’re traveling to customer sites, you rely on Skype to keep in touch with your family. Your Microsoft account pretty much touches every facet of your life.

Now let’s say you’re on a work trip. While talking to your wife on Skype you say and offensive word and somebody at Microsoft just happens to be monitoring the session. Perhaps this individual is a stickler for the rules, perhaps they’re just having a bad day. Either way they decide to exercise Microsoft’s right under the terms of service to which you agreed to terminate your Microsoft account right then and there. Your Skype session terminates immediately. You can no longer access your e-mail. Your entire trip to the customer site is wasted because you no longer have the tool you need, Visual Studio, to do your job.

The trip was a complete loss but the pain doesn’t stop there. When you get home and decide to blow off some steam by tearing apart people online, you find that your Xbox Live subscription has also been terminated. You aren’t even able to play offline games because you purchased them all via the Xbox One Store and the licenses for those purchases were tied to your user account, which was terminated. Much of your life has come to a grinding halt because one Microsoft employee monitoring your Skype session decided to terminate your account.

While one could accuse me of hyperbole for concocting this scenario, it is a very real possibility under the terms of service to which you agree when signing up for a Microsoft account. The terms of service give you no power and Microsoft absolute power. Microsoft can make whatever rules it wants whenever it wants and your only options are to submit or not use its services.

Microsoft isn’t even unique in this regard. The same one sided agreements are made when you create a account with Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, or pretty much any other service provider. The sad truth is that most of us rely heavily on accounts that we have no real control over. Your Google account could be suspended tomorrow and with it would go your Gmail account, any apps you’ve purchased for Android via the Play Store, revenue derived from YouTube ads, etc.

The licensing model ensures that we don’t actually own many of the things that we rely on. The one sided agreements to which we agree in order to access services that we rely on ensure that we have no recourse if our accounts are suspended. We’re effectively peasants and our lords are our service providers. What makes this situation even worse is that it’s one we helped create. By submitting to one sided agreements early on, we told service providers that it’s acceptable to take all of the power for themselves. By being willing to license software instead of owning it, we told developers that it’s acceptable to let us borrow their software instead of purchase it. We put ourselves at the mercy of these service providers and now we’re finally faced with an absurdly high bill and having regrets.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 28th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Teach Facebook a Lesson, Leave Facebook for Facebook

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People continue to pretend that they’re upset with Facebook. Some of the people pretending that they’re upset have decided to leave Facebook for Instagram:

Goodbye Facebook, hello Instagram.

Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012 for $1 billion, is having a moment — and just in time to be a lone bright spot for its parent company, which is in crisis over its handling of people’s private information.

“Thank Goodness For Instagram,” said a Wall Street research note on Facebook’s mounting troubles earlier this week. “I will delete Facebook, but you can pry Instagram from my cold, dead hands,” read a headline on tech news outlet Mashable.

I say that they’re pretending to be upset with Facebook because they’re effectively leaving Facebook for Facebook. Instagram was purchased by Facebook back in 2012 for the then seemingly absurd sum of $1 billion.

If you want to disassociate with Facebook, you need to be willing to do a bit of research (literally a single search on DuckDuckGo) to avoid simply transferring yourself to one of the company’s other departments. Furthermore, you should invest some time into finding an alternative that isn’t likely to suffer the same pitfalls as Facebook. For example, any company that appears to be providing a “free” service likely has a similar business model to Facebook. If you jump ship to another company with the same business model, you’re going to suffer the same privacy violations.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 28th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Gun Crime is Rising in London

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Remember what I said about laws being irrelevant? Here’s a great example of that:

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has been urged to consider a gun crime strategy for the capital, following a steep rise in the number of offences and fears that victims and perpetrators are getting younger.

The Metropolitan police recorded 2,542 gun crime offences in 2017, the highest number in five years and 44% more than the 1,755 recorded in 2014, according to a report by the London assembly’s police and crime committee.

Britain has enacted into law almost every restriction on gun ownership possible without a complete ban. According to the believers in law, this should have dwindled Britain’s gun crime to almost nothing. However, Britain is still experiencing gun crime and it’s increasing in parts of the country. How can this be? Simple, individuals have chosen to violate the country’s gun control laws. Since laws are nothing more than words on pieces of paper, they are entirely incapable of interfering with these individuals’ wills.

A government can pass whatever laws it desires. If people find the laws tolerable, they may obey them. If people find the laws intolerable, they will disobey them.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 28th, 2018 at 10:00 am

Embracing the Darknet

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Big changes came to the Internet shortly after Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). SESTA, like most legislation, has a name that sounds good on the surface but actually conceals some heinous provisions. One of those major provisions is holding website owners criminally liable for user generated content. This resulted in some drastic changes to sites like Reddit and Craiglist:

So far, four subreddits related to sex have banned: Escorts, Male Escorts, Hookers, and SugarDaddy. None were what could accurately be described as advertising forums, though (to varying degrees) they may have helped connect some people who wound up in “mutually beneficial relationships.” The escort forums were largely used by sex workers to communicate with one another, according to Partridge. Meanwhile, the “hooker” subreddit “was mostly men being disgusting,” according to Roux, “but also was a place that sometimes had people answering educational questions in good faith.”

[…]

Reddit yesterday announced changes to its content policy, now forbidding “transactions for certain goods and services,” including “firearms, ammunition, or explosives” and “paid services involving physical sexual contact.” While some of the prohibited exchanges are illegal, many are not.

Yet they run close enough up against exchanges that could be illegal that it’s hard for a third-party like Reddit to differentiate. And the same goes for forums where sex workers post educational content, news, safety and legal advice. Without broad Section 230 protections, Reddit could be in serious financial and legal trouble if they make the wrong call.

The passage of SESTA set a precedence that will certainly expand. Today Section 230 protections can be revoked for user generated content about sex trafficking. Tomorrow it could be revoked for user generated content involving hate speech, explaining the chemistry and biology behind how prohibited drugs work, showing the mechanics of how a machine gun operates, and so on. User generated content is now a liability and will only become more of a liability as the precedence is expanded.

Will this rid the world of content about sex work, drugs, and guns? Of course not. It will merely push that content to anonymized servers, commonly referred to as the “darkweb.” As laws make hosting content on the non-anonymized Internet a legal hazard, Internet users will find that they need tools like I2P and the Tor Browser to access more and more of the content they desire. The upside to this is that it will lead to a tremendous increase in resources available to developers and operators of “darkweb” technologies. Eventually the laws passed to thwart unapproved behavior will again make restricting unapproved behavior all but impossible.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 27th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Let’s See Some Follow Through

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It’s fashionable to point out parallels between the collapse of the Roman Republic and the current political situation here in the United States. While history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. One of the turning points in the Roman Republic was the death of Tiberius Gracchus. Tiberius was a popularis, a politician who appealed to the masses instead of the political elite. He proposed a number of reforms that favored the masses, which resulted in a group of senators grabbing clubs and beating Tiberius to death. This event was the first in what would become a long list of incidents where violence was overtly used to solve political disagreements.

While the United States’ wilder early years saw incidents where politicians used violence against each other to settle disputes, such violence has been entirely absent for a very long time. However, America might be tiptoeing closer to that precipice:

Biden, 75, who was captured making the remarks in a video posted to Facebook, told the audience that Trump, 71, once said, “‘I can grab a woman anywhere and she likes it’ and then said, ‘I made a mistake.'”

“If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him,” Biden said to applause.

Admittedly, I have my doubts that either man has the constitution necessary to take a swing at the other. But I would greatly enjoy seeing some follow through. Imagine the ratings that a Pay Per View politician cage match would bring in! Hell, it might be enough to offset the ballooning national debt increases!

With how device the United States is becoming, I believe that it’s only a matter of time until a politician attempts to prove his convictions by physically assaulting or even outright murdering an opposing politician. When that happens it will create another rhyme with the downfall of the Roman Republic.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 27th, 2018 at 10:30 am

Posted in Politics

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