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January 08 2014

How did we end up with a centralized Internet for the NSA to mine?

I’m sure it was a Wired editor, and not the author Steven Levy, who assigned the title “How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet” to yesterday’s fine article about the pressures on large social networking sites. Whoever chose the title, it’s justifiably grandiose because to many people, yes, companies such as Facebook and Google constitute what they know as the Internet. (The article also discusses threats to divide the Internet infrastructure into national segments, which I’ll touch on later.)

So my question today is: How did we get such industry concentration? Why is a network famously based on distributed processing, routing, and peer connections characterized now by a few choke points that the NSA can skim at its leisure?

I commented as far back as 2006 that industry concentration makes surveillance easier. I pointed out then that the NSA could elicit a level of cooperation (and secrecy) from the likes of Verizon and AT&T that it would never get in the US of the 1990s, where Internet service was provided by thousands of mom-and-pop operations like Brett Glass’s wireless service in Laramie, Wyoming. Things are even more concentrated now, in services if not infrastructure.

Having lived through the Boston Marathon bombing, I understand what the NSA claims to be fighting, and I am willing to seek some compromise between their needs for spooking and the protections of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. But as many people have pointed out, the dangers of centralized data storage go beyond the NSA. Bruce Schneier just published a pretty comprehensive look at how weak privacy leads to a weakened society. Others jeer that if social networking companies weren’t forced to give governments data, they’d be doing just as much snooping on their own to raise the click rates on advertising. And perhaps our more precious, closely held data — personal health information — is constantly subject to a marketplace for data mining.

Let’s look at the elements that make up the various layers of hardware and software we refer to casually as the Internet. How does centralization and decentralization work for each?

Public routers

One of Snowden’s major leaks reveals that the NSA pulled a trick comparable to the Great Firewall of China, tracking traffic as it passes through major routers across national borders. Like many countries that censor traffic, in other words, the NSA capitalized on the centralization of international traffic.

Internet routing within the US has gotten more concentrated over the years. There were always different “tiers” of providers, who all did basically the same thing but at inequitable prices. Small providers always complained about the fees extracted by Tier 1 networks. A Tier 1 network can transmit its own traffic nearly anywhere it needs to go for just the cost of equipment, electricity, etc., while extracting profit from smaller networks that need its transport. So concentration in the routing industry is a classic economy of scale.

International routers, of the type targeted by the NSA and many US governments, are even more concentrated. African and Latin American ISPs historically complained about having to go through US or European routers even if the traffic just came back to their same continent. (See, for instance, section IV of this research paper.) This raised the costs of Internet use in developing countries.

The reliance of developing countries on outside routers stems from another simple economic truth: there are more routers in affluent countries for the same reason there are more shopping malls or hospitals in affluent countries. Foreigners who have trespassed US laws can be caught if they dare to visit a shopping mall or hospital in the US. By the same token, their traffic can be grabbed by the NSA as it travels to a router in the US, or one of the other countries where the NSA has established a foothold. It doesn’t help that the most common method of choosing routes, the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), is a very old Internet standard with no concept of built-in security.

The solution is economic: more international routers to offload traffic from the MAE-Wests and MAE-Easts of the world. While opposing suggestions to “balkanize” the Internet, we can applaud efforts to increase connectivity through more routers and peering.

IaaS cloud computing

Centralization has taken place at another level of the Internet: storage and computing. Data is theoretically safe from intruders in the cloud so long as encryption is used both in storage and during transmission — but of course, the NSA thought of that problem long ago, just as they thought of everything. So use encryption, but don’t depend on it.

Movement to the cloud is irreversible, so the question to ask is how free and decentralized the cloud can be. Private networks can be built on virtualization solutions such as the proprietary VMware and Azure or the open source OpenStack and Eucalyptus. The more providers there are, the harder it will be to do massive data collection.

SaaS cloud computing

The biggest change — what I might even term the biggest distortion — in the Internet over the past couple decades has been the centralization of content. Ironically, more and more content is being produced by individuals and small Internet users, but it is stored on commercial services, where it forms a tempting target for corporate advertisers and malicious intruders alike. Some people have seriously suggested that we treat the major Internet providers as public utilities (which would make them pretty big white elephants to unload when the next big thing comes along).

This was not technologically inevitable. Attempts at peer-to-peer social networking go back to the late 1990s with Jabber (now the widely used XMPP standard), which promised a distributed version of the leading Internet communications medium of the time: instant messaging. Diaspora more recently revived the idea in the context of Facebook-style social networking.

These services allow many independent people to maintain servers, offering the service in question to clients while connecting where necessary. Such an architecture could improve overall reliability because the failure of an individual server would be noticed only by people trying to communicate with it. The architecture would also be pretty snoop-proof, too.

Why hasn’t the decentralized model taken off? I blame SaaS. The epoch of concentration in social media coincides with the shift of attention from free software to SaaS as a way of delivering software. SaaS makes it easier to form a business around software (while the companies can still contribute to free software). So developers have moved to SaaS-based businesses and built new DevOps development and deployment practices around that model.

To be sure, in the age of the web browser, accessing a SaaS service is easier than fussing with free software. To champion distributed architectures such as Jabber and Diaspora, free software developers will have to invest as much effort into the deployment of individual servers as SaaS developers have invested in their models. Business models don’t seem to support that investment. Perhaps a concern for privacy will.

July 12 2013

The poor bosses

The poor bosses
http://africasacountry.com/poor-bosses

Miners at multinational #Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana in Rustenburg, #South_Africa, speaking to (South African) Sunday Times reporter Lucky Biyase: ‘Whenever we ask for a wage increase, these companies plead poverty and threaten us with retrenchments. This is because they don’t want to pay money to black people. Why work when you don’t get [...]

#HISTORY #mining

July 22 2011

University sculpture upsets Wyoming coal industry

University accused of ingratitude by one of its main funders for choosing to exhibit 'Carbon Sink' by British artist Chris Drury

The sculpture was always going to be hard to ignore – a giant 36-foot whorl of silvery logs and lumps of black coal in front of the main campus building at the University of Wyoming.

But British artist Chris Drury thought his commentary on the connection between the coal industry and dead trees would merely generate some polite on-campus debate in Cheyenne.

Not anymore. Drury's work, Carbon Sink What Goes Around Comes Around, sits in the heart of coal country, Wyoming, which mines more coal than any other state in America.

The work's existence and the links it draws between coal, climate change, and the pine beetle infestation that is devastating the landscape of the Rocky Mountains, has set off a debate about artistic and academic freedom, with the mining industry and Republican state legislators expressing outrage that a university that got money from coal would dare to turn on it.

"I thought it was a fairly innocuous thing to do," said Drury . "But it's kind of upset a lot of people here. Perhaps it was slightly more obvious because it is slightly more crucial in this state. But this is a university so I expected to start a debate, not a row."

He said he got the idea from a conversation with a scientist who complained that nobody was drawing the connection between the daily coal shipments from Wyoming, and the pine beetle infestation that was killing the region's forests.

The beetles are endemic to the Rockies but with climate change the region no longer gets the plunging temperatures that used to kill them off. Milder winters have allowed the beetles to live on and eat their way through the Rockies, stripping the bark off lodgepole pines from Colorado to British Columbia.

Some of the logs used in the installation were still crawling with beetles.

But as Drury charts on his blog, his comment on the connections between that calamity and coal was too close to home.

By day three of construction, the mining industry was accusing the university of ingratitude towards one of its main benefactors – in what some have seen as a veiled threat to cut funding.

"They get millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas and coal to run the university, and then they put up a monument attacking me, demonising the industry," Marion Loomis, the director of the Wyoming Mining Association, told the Casper Star-Tribune. "I understand academic freedom, and we're very supportive of it, but it's still disappointing."

Then two Republican members of the Wyoming state legislature joined in, calling the work an insult to coal. The subject of university funding also came up.

"While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget – I'm a great supporter of the University of Wyoming – every now and then, you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from," Tom Lubnau, one of the state legislators, told the Gillette News-Record.

The university said it was standing by Drury's work, although it was not necessarily endorsing his message.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


February 13 2010

Ukraine miners: Coalfaces

Coalmining has hardly changed over the last 200 years. Photographer Gleb Kosorukov captures labourers at one of Europe's largest pits as they return to the surface after a six-hour shift.
View the video here

On the night of 30-31 August 1935, the ­Soviet miner Alexey Stakhanov set a new record for coal production. Working deep inside the ­bowels of a mine in eastern Ukraine, ­Stakhanov managed to hew out 102 tonnes of coal in five hours and 32 minutes. This was 14 times more than the standard daily norm.

Although it later emerged he had help, ­Stakhanov's super-human feat became a synonym for heroism and communist endeavour. In a matter of months the "Stakhanov" movement had spread across the Soviet Union, with workers and farmers urged to set their own norm-defying records for personal productivity.

Seventy-five years later, miners still work at the mine where Stakhanov set his record. In a series of 100 remarkable portraits, the Russian photographer Gleb Kosorukov has captured the Ukrainian miners on their ­return to the surface from a six-hour shift ­underground, amid dust, dirt and artificial light. Most of the miners agreed to be photographed for the project. A handful refused. They were indifferent to Stakhanov's record, ­Kosorukov says. They regarded themselves as underpaid. They were also deeply cynical about their c­ountry's ­eternally feuding political leaders.

"Oil and gas have been so much in the news in recent decades. Coal has almost ­disappeared from the territory of Europe. People imagine that it doesn't exist any more," ­Kosorukov says. "In fact, coal is responsible for a major part of the world's energy. I wanted to make coal visible."

In practice, coalmining has hardly changed over the past 100 or 200 years – miners then, as now, face an omni­present fear of death.

"It's an archetype of the working class. It ­encapsulates all the things we think about working class. Miners face extremes in their profession. Mortality is high," Kosorukov says. "There is a little bit of heroism in their life. In some ways they are modern saints. They know that some day they may never come back from the mine."

The photos were taken in September 2009 at the Stakhanov mine, 40km from the ­eastern industrial town of Donetsk. The mine was named after its most famous ex-employee ­following his death in 1977. It is part of a c­omplex of four mines owned by the state.

Production has fallen since Soviet times, from 1m tonnes a year under communism to 375,000 today. There are fewer miners, too: 2,381 compared with 10,000-12,000 in the mine's heyday. Little has changed, however. The miners continue to use the old Soviet equipment.

And yet despite this production decline, Kosorukov argues that coal will continue to play a crucial role in the world's energy needs. He also sees it, moreover, as the answer to Ukraine's energy problems at a time when Russia regularly uses gas as a weapon against its smaller neighbour.

"Coal is responsible for more than 40% of the energy produced by humans, more than twice exceeding respective figures for oil and gas. Because of the restrictive security limitations put on development of nuclear power plants, the situation will hardly change in the near future."


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Ukrainian miners: Portraits

These images form part of a series of 100 stunning portraits by photographer Gleb Kosorukov of Ukrainian miners as they finish work



January 12 2009

TERRA 502: The New World Mine

Just three miles from the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park, Noranda Inc. proposed to build one of North America’s largest gold mines. Cooke City residents, Jim and Heidi Barrett knew that this would irreversibly damage the Yellowstone ecosystem and the place they loved. So with the help of various non-profit organizations, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, they fought a battle to stop the mine. Against all odds they won. This inspirational story demonstrates how ordinary people standing up for what they believe in can make a difference.
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