The Logan Act and Democratic Hypocrisy

The media has been up in arms the last week or so over Mike Flynn’s supposedly intercepted phone call with the Russian Ambassador over Obama Administration sanctions.  Also, let’s not forget that this phone call was supposedly obtained through Signals Intelligence (aren’t there rules about intercepting such calls when Americans are present?) and its release is a major felony.  But back to the main point.  Did Mike Flynn violate the Logan Act?  Well, what the hell is the Logan Act?

According to Wikipedia The Logan Act is:

The Logan Act (1 Stat. 613, 18 U.S.C. § 953, enacted January 30, 1799) is a United States federal law that details the fine and/or imprisonment of unauthorized citizens who negotiate with foreign governments having a dispute with the United States. It was intended to prevent the undermining of the government’s position.[2] The Act was passed following George Logan‘s unauthorized negotiations with France in 1798, and was signed into law by President John Adams on January 30, 1799. The Act was last amended in 1994, and violation of the Logan Act is a felony.

Now, can someone tell me how the hell the Democrats didn’t violate the hell out of this act in the 1970’s and 1980’s?  A quick and dirty internet search turns up the following:

From the New York Times:

MEXICO CITY, May 26— A delegation of Democrats opposed to the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America met today with Mexico’s Foreign Minister and gave their backing to a peace initiative being promoted by Mexico and three other regional governments.

A spokesman for the group said the trip had been approved by Representative Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., Democrat of Massachusetts, the Speaker of the House, and by other leading Democrats. ”This trip is planned as one of a series of meetings on Central America,” a group member said. ”The idea is to try and find another concept to support without confronting President Reagan.”

From Wikipedia:

April 1974, [Teddy] Kennedy travelled to the Soviet Union, where he met with leader Leonid Brezhnev and advocated a full nuclear test ban.

From Forbes:

“On 9-10 May of this year,” the May 14 memorandum explained, “Sen. Edward Kennedy’s close friend and trusted confidant [John] Tunney was in Moscow.” (Tunney was Kennedy’s law school roommate and a former Democratic senator from California.) “The senator charged Tunney to convey the following message, through confidential contacts, to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Y. Andropov.”

Kennedy’s message was simple. He proposed an unabashed quid pro quo. Kennedy would lend Andropov a hand in dealing with President Reagan. In return, the Soviet leader would lend the Democratic Party a hand in challenging Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. “The only real potential threats to Reagan are problems of war and peace and Soviet-American relations,” the memorandum stated. “These issues, according to the senator, will without a doubt become the most important of the election campaign.”

Kennedy made Andropov a couple of specific offers.

First he offered to visit Moscow. “The main purpose of the meeting, according to the senator, would be to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they may be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA.” Kennedy would help the Soviets deal with Reagan by telling them how to brush up their propaganda.

Then he offered to make it possible for Andropov to sit down for a few interviews on American television. “A direct appeal … to the American people will, without a doubt, attract a great deal of attention and interest in the country. … If the proposal is recognized as worthy, then Kennedy and his friends will bring about suitable steps to have representatives of the largest television companies in the USA contact Y.V. Andropov for an invitation to Moscow for the interviews. … The senator underlined the importance that this initiative should be seen as coming from the American side.”

Kennedy would make certain the networks gave Andropov air time–and that they rigged the arrangement to look like honest journalism.

I wonder how many more such instances one could find if one really tried. Sounds to me like the media’s sudden self righteous indignation over Flynn’s unauthorized phone conversation regarding Obama Administration sanctions is more than a little political.  Maybe Flynn did violate the spirit if not the letter of the act but he seems to be in good company.

Lest anyone think I’m just mindlessly defending Trump, I’ll also add that if it turns out the the Trump team was having extensive secret negotiations with Russian Intelligence officials before and immediately after the election then a thorough and complete investigation should be done.  Anyone caught breaking the law (not just flirting with the Logan Act) should be fully prosecuted.


The 5th Amendment and Your Computer

I’ve always felt that being forced by a court to unlock a safe or decrypt a computer drive was a violation of the 5th Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.  Whether you produce a physical key/combination or a password is irrelevant in my mind.  It seems that the EFF feels the same way.  The case of Francis Rawls brings this issue to the forefront and also highlights an interesting peer-to-peer network called Freenet.  Mr. Rawls is being held indefinitely on contempt of court charges for refusing to decrypt his two external hard drives.

Since I’m not a lawyer I won’t try to hash out complex legal issues.  The legal issues are laid out here and you can read them for yourself.  The EFF filed a friend-of-the court brief in this case that states their position on the issue.  Read it if you so choose.  My take-a-ways are these:

1. The courts and the law need to recognize that technology has changed how we humans interact with one another, with how we order our lives, and how we store our private and personal papers, thoughts, and inner most secrets.  We have moved into a digital world while the law is still stuck in the old world of physical keys, hard copy papers, and physical vaults.  In the case of forced decryption you must use the contents of your mind to render intelligible what is currently unintelligible (encrypted data).   I view this as a 5th Amendment violation.  In my opinion the law needs to catch up to the way we currently use encryption to protect the important contents of our lives which are now kept on computers and smartphones.  It needs to bring 18th, 19th, and 20th century civil rights protections into the 21st century.

2.  What if you really do forget your password?  Can you really rot in jail in the USA for years on end without a trial?  What if someone plants an encrypted device on your person or property and tips off the police that you’re hiding illegal content?  That could get very ugly very fast.  Even if you are eventually cleared you may still loose your job and reputation.

3.  In my opinion peer-to-peer networks like Freenet can give a false sense of security to people and lead to disastrous consequences.  If you are conducting sensitive activities and aren’t using the anonymity of the Tor network then you are making a mistake.  The case of Mr. Rawls begs the question - if Freenet is so secure and anonymous how did Mr. Rawls get caught?  To quote from the site itself:

Communications by Freenet nodes are encrypted and are routed through other nodes to make it extremely difficult to determine who is requesting the information and what its content is.

Users contribute to the network by giving bandwidth and a portion of their hard drive (called the “data store”) for storing files. Files are automatically kept or deleted depending on how popular they are, with the least popular being discarded to make way for newer or more popular content. Files are encrypted, so generally the user cannot easily discover what is in his datastore, and hopefully can’t be held accountable for it. Chat forums, websites, and search functionality, are all built on top of this distributed data store.

Note the sentence - “Files are encrypted, so generally the user cannot easily discover what is in his datastore, and hopefully can’t be held accountable for it.”  Hopefully???? Really???  ‘Hopefully’ you won’t be held accountable for someone else’s illegal content??????  ‘Hopefully’ you won’t go to prison for decades because of someone else’s stuff??   WTF??   Based on that sentence alone I would never install such software on my computer.  Folks, I can’t tell you what to do but please use some common sense when engaging in sensitive, anonymous activity, whether you’re a dissident, journalist, student, or member of a vulnerable group. Anonymity is hard and if you let others put something on your computer you may be called to account for it.  Knowing what’s on your computer and keeping it safe can be the difference between life in the real world and life in prison.

More thoughts on computer privacy and anonymity

Given the contentious 2016 election and the renewed debate over government surveillance I decided to post a new page to the blog about how to maintain privacy and anonymity on the internet.  Follow this link to see the page.  The political environment in the US and around the world is not and has not been friendly to the privacy rights of individuals.  While total anonymity is impossible there are at least some steps everyone can take to secure sensitive data and make themselves harder to track.  Most people aren’t very technical and don’t think much about securing their private data when using computers and smart phones.  I’m hoping I can help those non-technical folks who are interested in protecting their privacy to do so. I really love what the EFF has to say about surveillance and I hope more people will read it.

It’s not just journalists or important people who should take their online privacy seriously.  The average citizen and political activists of all kinds should have a real interest in protecting themselves online.  The DNC hack/phishing attack in 2016 drives that point home.  In fact, anonymous speech can be crucial to a vibrant democracy.  When political and social pressure is brought to bear it can drive people to self censorship.  Social media makes it easy to find people with unpopular opinions and then ostracize or harass them.  Who wants to go out on a limb with a new idea if they know opponents of that idea will attack them personally?  If ideas are presented anonymously then maybe the idea will be judged without prejudice toward the originator of the idea.  The Federalist Papers were initially published anonymously to minimize personal discrediting attacks that might be leveled against certain individuals.  The Anti-Federalist Papers were done the same way.  Imagine that - a battle of ideas and arguments not personal attacks on individuals and their private scandals.

Private individuals should feel free to contribute to the public discourse and make their ideas known without fear of online harassment.  Knowing how to defend oneself online will boost confidence and lead to more political involvement.  Knowledge is power and technical knowledge is no exception.  In the times we live in such knowledge is paramount.  Educate yourself and engage with the online world in full force.  The bottom line is that if your are a political or social activist you owe it to  yourself to make your data secure and keep your private life private.

Fascist USA?

Seems like the word “Fascist” is being thrown around more and more since the election.  But just what the hell is a Fascist anyway?  To some it’s “whoever disagrees with me.”  To others it’s “Republicans in general.”  But seriously, what do they mean when they warn us of Fascism?  Well, it seems there is more than one definition floating around out there.  In his message to Congress regarding monopolies FDR defined it this way -

“…the first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself.  That, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.”

His definition sounds suspiciously like an oligarchy which is “a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution.” I think this definition is inaccurate.

Let’s visit the writings of Mr. Fascist himself, Benito Mussolini.  Mussolini wrote an entire book on the subject called “The Doctrine of Fascism.” OK, it is short and book might not be the best word to use but you get the idea.  After all, he founded the Fascist Party.  He called it both “practice and thought” and “an organic conception of the world.”  Whoa. Sounds all encompassing to me, not at all friendly to the libertarian mind. The main takeaways are that it is anti-individual, authoritarian, realistic (as opposed to utopian) in outlook, and Statist.  It is for the individual so long “as he coincides with the State, which is the conscience and universal will of man in his historical existence.”  It opposes liberty and classical liberalism since they put the individual’s interest before the State’s interest. In essence, man is subservient to the State.  He says “...outside the State there can be neither individuals nor groups..” He calls it the “giver of laws, ” the “educator of spiritual life,” and says that it should enter “in the spirits of men and there govern unopposed.”

In short, Fascism (like totalitarian Communism) belongs to the cult of the State.  In no way does this resemble the current Democratic or Republican parties in the United States.  Fascism is not compatible with individual liberty or human freedom.  It cannot allow Religion or anything else to come between man and the all powerful State.  The end result of any authoritarian system of government is war, prisons, and concentration camps. Force and terror become the only way to protect the status quo. Note that nowhere is it said to be built on racism although the two often go together.

Fortunately, the United States has a government in place that is designed to resist authoritarian impulses.  The State serves the people not the other way around.  Power is not concentrated in one man or Party.  The individual is free to act according to his conscience and worship God however he chooses.  The individual has value and is NOT subordinate to a Party, his ethnic or social group, a government, or any other mass movement.  Remember that the next time someone tells you there is no God and man is subordinate to the will of the people (whatever that means).  If there is no power higher than man then every conceivable evil under the sun can be justified by popular vote.  Our government recognizes the inalienable rights of men - rights that can’t be undone by the next election.  The people’s representatives in Congress make the laws, levy taxes, and create budgets but only as allowed by the Constitution.  Their power is not unlimited.  The President executes the laws and enforces them.  The Supreme Court keeps check on both to make sure the Constitution and the law is not violated.  It is a system built to be inefficient.  The Founders were students of history and feared tyranny.  We should be mindful of why we have the system we do before trying to radically alter it.  Our system will only work as long as it is respected by the people of the country.  The Founders recognized the need for peaceful change.  The Constitution is amendable.  The system we have is designed to protect freedom and individual liberty.  It is a good and strong system and will even survive Donald Trump. Let’s remember that the next time our outrage over social injustices reaches a boiling point.  Our system is designed to give voice to the people, allow for protest, and allow for peaceful change so that problems aren’t suppressed until they explode in revolution.  Metaphorically speaking, when the pot boils, take off the lid.  Clamping it down tighter invites an explosion.

The Security Of Our Voting Machines Needs To Be Taken More Seriously

I’ve often wondered if foreign governments (Russia or China for instance) or maybe just angry hackers have plans to hack our voting systems in an attempt to influence the outcome of our elections.  The presidential election is right around the corner so the issue of voting machine security is on the radar.  Voter fraud and intimidation have occurred in the past many times.  Voting is a fundamental right and fraud threatens the integrity of our democratic system.  No one wants to talk about the security vulnerabilities in electronic voting machines.  Especially not the companies that make them or government officials.  But they can be hacked in different ways.  The recent flap over the DNC hack just confirmed my suspicions.  The more we try to make voting convenient and easy using modern computer technology the more we open ourselves up to attack.  When I came across this article the other day it reminded me just how vulnerable we are.  Please read it.  It is well worth your time.

Along these same lines, The Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology published a good paper detailing how easy it is to hack these machines and steal voter data.  We need to treat voting machines as critical national infrastructure.  Security features of the machines need to be standardized across the country.  This is a national issue and demands a nationwide response.  At the very least we need the machines to have redundant paper backups that can be audited and compared to the electronic totals to verify accuracy.  It is time we take election security much more seriously.



Don’t Make Yourself So Easy To Track

Most technically proficient people know that our smartphones are very good personal tracking devices that record where we go and how long we are there.  A great article at The Verge reminds us that law enforcement is wise to this and getting more and more search warrants to pull Android user location data.  To many non-technical people these location tracking features might come as a surprise.   The article points out that police recently used Android location data to solve a bank robbery.  The police originally went to the suspect’s wireless carrier, AT&T, but the information obtained there was less precise (and useful) than data obtained from Google.  You see Google has a nice little location history feature in the phone that uses GPS data.  The wireless carriers use cell tower data that is less precise than GPS.  According to the article:  “Location History uses the phone’s location data to build a persistent portrait of where a user has traveled with their phone, a history that can be viewed or edited in the Timeline tab of Google Maps. Every time the phone establishes a strong enough location point, the system makes an entry in the user’s Timeline history, establishing that the user was in that place at that time.”  Remember, this data can go back years.  This sounds like a bonanza for law enforcement, journalists, hackers, and divorce lawyers.  It is also a detriment to people’s privacy.  Being tracked to this degree is not what most people have in mind when buying a smartphone.  For more information on how law enforcement uses this information, read this article from The Intercept.  Fortunately, you can turn the location history off by going to Android’s settings menu, under “Personal”, and selecting “Location.”  The toggle Location off.  That should stop the phone from recording your location and tagging photos with GPS data.  You can also go to Google’s Account Privacy page and turn it off there and view other Google settings related to your privacy and web history.  Don’t make yourself so easy to track.  Think about those default settings and what they do.  Are they benefiting you or someone else?  You have a right to privacy, but you need to actively defend it.  You can’t rely on companies that obtain their revenue through targeted advertising to do it for you.

Euthanasia For “Mental Illness” On The Rise In Netherlands

I remember years ago when people were debating the assisted suicide issue they said it would lead to a slippery slope where more and more conditions would result in euthanasia.  It was supposed to be that euthanasia would be reserved for terminal illnesses where all hope was lost and the patient was in constant pain.  Critics said euthanasia would spread beyond such conditions to just about everyone who wanted to die for one reason or another. I thought they were exaggerating.  I certainly want to reserve the euthanasia option for myself should I be in a situation of constant pain and no hope of recovery.  I can also see how euthanasia would be a merciful end to the life of an elderly person lost forever in the deepest depths of dementia from which they will never recover.  Well, now it seems the critics did have a valid point.  In the Netherlands it is being reported that euthanasia is being allowed for various mental illnesses.  In fact, a twenty something woman was allowed to end her life because of the incurable PTSD she suffered from a rape earlier in life.  According to the story:

“Whereas just two people had themselves euthanised in the country in 2010 due to an “insufferable” mental illness, 56 people did so last year, a trend which sparked concern among ethicists.”

And then there is this little gem:

“Paulan Stärcke, who will present her findings at the Euthanasia 2016 conference in Amsterdam Thursday, told The Telegraph that even children as young as 12 who ask to end their lives should be taken seriously.”

“Other speakers at the conference will discuss euthanasia worldwide for terminally ill children, and people who are “tired of life”.

These are exactly the less than justifiable reasons we were warned about 20 years ago.  While terminal illness is one thing (no point in letting people hang on in constant pain while waiting to die) mental illnesses are another thing entirely.  Could this girl in her twenties have been helped by some as of yet untried treatment?  She had another 60 plus years ahead of her.  Will her rapist now be charged with murder?  These are tough questions, but valid ones.  In another case a thirty-four year old woman with a three year old child was allowed to end her life because she was depressed and it was feared she would commit suicide anyway.  I’ve got to hand it to the critics on this one - we have come a long way down a dark road.  How can someone who is mentally ill still have the sound judgement to make an end of life decision?  Will the system be abused to rid the world of vulnerable or unpopular groups of people?  Do we trust “professionals” and bureaucrats to make these kinds of decisions?  This article raises so many questions I can’t think of them all.  At the very least this issue needs a lot more thought. I wonder if society even has the moral clarity to tackle this issue.  I wonder what C.S. Lewis would think of today’s culture and its priorities.  I think it’s time for a new debate on this issue.



More Stupidity On The Legal Front - Man Arrested for Nazi Dog

I should just start a whole section for stupid officials arresting people for stupid things and stomping all over the right of free speech.  Then again, free speech and liberty belong to mature, civilized people, and mature, civilized people, are in short supply these days.  But since free speech is something I care about I could not ignore it.  I was (should not have been) as surprised as everyone else to hear that a police official in the UK arrested a man because he taught his dog to do a Nazi salute during Hitler speeches.  Here is the link to the story.  That way you know I’m not making this crap up.  Detective Inspector David Cockburn of Lanarkshire CID said: “This arrest should serve as a warning to anyone posting such material online, or in any other capacity, that such views will not be tolerated.”  To which I say David Cockburn of Lanarkshire CID is a flaming idiot.  Do we really need to arrest people for doing stupid tasteless things? Is society any safer after the arrest?  Should the dog be put down now that he has turned it into a hopeless Nazi? (just kidding)  I thought we were trying to keep non-violent offenders out of prison these days.  Honestly, can’t we just rely on social ostracism and peer pressure to keep jerks in line?   Here is the real point of it all - free societies should allow people to be Nazis if they want to be.  We can shun them and protest them at every turn, but the government should not be getting involved.   Police arresting people for speaking their minds is more dangerous than letting offensive people rant on the internet.  And besides, we need to keep the prisons free for truly dangerous people - like teenagers who deface websites 😉   Remember, to keep us from living in a police state we really need to keep things in perspective.  No need to make mountains out of mole hills when we already have enough mountains.  Thanks for putting up with my own little rant.


The Weak Link In Cyber Security: Humans

It’s no surprise that we humans are our own worst enemy when it comes to security.  We tend to be lazy, complacent, and far too confident in our defenses. We don’t keep our software patched, our curiosity causes us to open dangerous attachments or click on dangerous links, we use poor passwords and we’re often too eager to be helpful to the social engineer on the other end of the phone.  Here is the link to a great write up on how human nature helps the cyber criminal.  One of the important takeaways from the story is that the vast majority of exploits target security holes in software that have been round for months or years. According to the article, “the top 10 known vulnerabilities accounted for 85 percent of successful exploits.”  The vulnerabilities are well known yet nothing has been done to patch them for whatever reason.  63% of data breaches involve weak or stolen passwords.  Phishing attacks are also on the rise and are succeeding because of the things people do – like click on attachments or links in suspicious emails.  Many of these phishing emails are well crafted and thought out.  They can convince employees that a manager within their organization is requesting data when it is really a spoofed email from an attacker outside the organization.  In one case a community college employee was tricked into emailing sensitive employee data to a criminal.  The data was gone as soon as the email was sent.  When these attacks are successful the compromise happens quickly (93% within minutes of the breach).  However, detection is much slower – 83% of breaches weren’t discovered for weeks or months afterward.  In cases where network penetration occurs the data is gone within minutes in 28% of the cases.  There are often three prongs to the modern attack:

1. Send phishing email with malware or link to malicious website

2. Install malware on target computer

3. Elevate privileges and access more data or use the site as a jumping off point for attacks on yet more sites.

The defenses are basically the same as they have always been – train your employees not to do dumb things (good luck with that), use two factor authentication, keep your software patched and up to date, back up your data, monitor your network and look for users who don’t belong or exceed their authorized access levels, and encrypt your important data.  Whether at work or at home be vigilant.  Good security practices pay for themselves.

Malware Threat Is Getting Worse

Keeping your computer, smart phone, and home network safe isn’t getting any easier. Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few years you probably already know the malware to exploit your digital life is getting easier to obtain and more effective all the time.   Ransomeware is becoming big business and much more common.  Criminals who aren’t technical or command line proficient can now launch malware they don’t understand from a GUI interface. This article gives a good description of how these exploits work. Simply visiting an infected website can allow malware to attack your computer or smart phone. Cyber criminals are also going after smart phones with exploits designed just for them. People often use their phones to browse the web and check email even though the phones don’t have the security features likely to be found on a well secured desktop.  One nasty exploit is called “Angler” and it will inject malicious URLs into website ads redirecting the victim to another website where malware is installed.  In response to such attacks this article recommends a layered defense to protect your computer.  It offers some insights into various ways malware infects a system, hides itself, and does its dirty work.  Malware can disguise itself quite well and hide from your antivirus. If you want to stay safe online the same old rules apply - keep your system updated and patched regularly, don’t let Adobe Flash run automatically (Flash accounts for some 80% of the exploited software vulnerabilities), don’t click on attachments in emails if you aren’t 100% about them, and don’t say “yes” to enabling macros unless you know what you are doing.  If you’re concerned about the safety of your system I suggest reviewing my simple tips for securing your computer. After that you can explore more advanced means of protection.