The Risks Digest

The RISKS Digest

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

Volume 30 Issue 55

Saturday 17 February 2018


Aerospace Eyes Pilotless Cargo Planes
Richard M Stein via Straits Times
White Paper Points Out Just How Irresponsible 'Responsible Encryption' Is
TechDirt via Richard Forno
Ghost in the DCL shell: OpenVMS, touted as ultra reliable, had a local root hole for 30 years
The Register
Hackers Find, Fix 106 Security Flaws in Air Force Bug Bounty Challenge
"Skype can't fix a nasty security bug without a massive code rewrite"
Zack Whittaker
That mega-vulnerability Cisco dropped is now under exploit
Ars Technica
Understanding the Attack Vectors of CVE-2018-0101—Cisco ASA Remote Code Execution and Denial of Service Vulnerability
How a Low-Level Apple Employee Leaked Some of the iPhone's Most Sensitive Code
Pirates Crack Microsoft's UWP Protection, Five Layers of DRM Defeated
Cyberattack Caused Olympic Opening Ceremony Disruption
Nicole Perlroth
Samsung and Roku Smart TVs Vulnerable to Hacking
Consumer Reports
FinTech Revolut sends PINs via email
Toby Douglass
"The House That Spied on Me"
Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu
House Committee votes to terminate the Election Assistance Commission
The Nation
Spelling corrector busy changing words many pages back
Dan Jacobson
"Biggest Brazilian newspaper quits Facebook"
Angelica Mari
"Facebook's Very Revealing Text Messaging Privacy Fail"
Lauren Weinstein
Australian Cabinet Files
Bruce Schneier via PGN
With Closed-Circuit TV, Satellites And Phones, Millions Of Cameras Are Watching via Richard M Stein
Someone Is Sending Amazon Sex Toys to Strangers. Amazon Has No Idea How to Stop It
The Daily Beast
One Cause of Market Turbulence: Computer-Driven Index Funds
NYTimes via Richard M Stein
Most People Prefer Buying Wireless Devices Through Their Smartphones
Re: The unstoppable momentum of self-driving cars
Michael Bacon
Re: The Fake-Follower Factory
Jose Maria Mateos
Re: WHATIS Going to Happen With WHOIS?
Michael Bacon
John Beattie
Denver Airport AGTS marble stairs: Fall risk due to lack of contrast
Shawn Merdinger
Contra Ovadya on post-truth
John Ohno
Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Aerospace Eyes Pilotless Cargo Planes (via Straits Times)

Richard M Stein <>
Sat, 10 Feb 2018 12:00:58 +0800

The headline speaks for itself risk-wise. From the article:

  “Given an increasing global demand for air freight coupled with a
  shortage in air crew, we believe that unmanned freighters will provide a
  viable solution as well as tangible benefits such as lower cost of
  operation, For a start, the plan is to develop a single-pilot freighter
  instead of having two pilots in the cockpit. ... Support will be provided
  from the ground by a second pilot who "can potentially be supporting up to
  12 single-pilot aircraft simultaneously. ... If the pilot in the aircraft
  is incapacitated for whatever reasons, the ground pilot takes control and
  performs an emergency landing.''

I couldn't imagine that an ACARS hack or GPS navigation spoof or operational
flight plan bug might catastrophically divert the planned flight to
autonomous air vehicle deployment on a fleet-wide basis? If we don't try,
we'll never know if we can succeed?  Undoubtedly so, but until "success" is
quantified—an accident safety rating equal too or superior to
human-piloted vehicles + insurance would be a start—we'll never

White Paper Points Out Just How Irresponsible 'Responsible Encryption' Is

Richard Forno <>
February 13, 2018 at 2:39:39 PM EST
  [via Dave Farber]

In recent months, both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI
Director Christopher Wray have been calling for holes in encryption law
enforcement can drive a warrant through. Both have no idea how this can be
accomplished, but both are reasonably sure tech companies can figure it out
for them. And if some sort of key escrow makes encryption less secure than
it is now, so be it. Whatever minimal gains in access law enforcement
obtains will apparently offset the damage done by key leaks or criminal
exploitation of a deliberately-weakened system.

Cryptography expert Riana Pfefferkorn has released a white paper examining
the feasibility of the vague requests made by Rosenstein and Wray. Their
preferred term is "responsible encryption"—a term that allows them to
step around landmines like "encryption backdoors" or "we're making
encryption worse for everyone!" Her paper shows "responsible encryption" is
anything but. And, even if implemented, it will result in far less access
(and far more nefarious exploitation) than Rosenstein and Wray think.

Ghost in the DCL shell: OpenVMS, touted as ultra reliable, had a local root hole for 30 years (The Register)

"Peter G. Neumann" <>
Thu, 15 Feb 2018 21:27:24 PST

  Forget Meltdown and Spectre. Someone's found a local privilege escalation
  in the operating system world's elderly statesman OpenVMS when running it
  on VAX and Alpha processors.  On Itanium CPUs, the same bug can be
  exploited to crash a process ... Software running on seemingly bulletproof
  OpenVMS systems tends to be rather business critical - the sort of code
  you deploy and keep running forever - so updates that may disrupt
  operations are treated with utmost care by administrators.  Introduced to
  the world as VMS in 1977, OpenVMS today still powers a good chunk of
  billing systems, stock exchanges, semiconductor factories, and similar
  setups. It is touted as a reliable and secure OS for mission-critical

Hackers Find, Fix 106 Security Flaws in Air Force Bug Bounty Challenge (TRK)

Gabe Goldberg <>
Fri, 16 Feb 2018 14:27:22 -0500
In its second major bug bounty challenge in less than a year, 27 hackers
found 106 valid security flaws on U.S. Air Force systems as part of
*HackerOne*'s recent *Hack the Air Force 2.0 *event, the company said on
Thursday. Hackers from the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Sweden,

Netherlands, Belgium and Latvia participated in the 20-day challenge,
earning $103,883 in bounties. The event began Dec. 9 in New York with a live
hacking session, where *Department of Defense* and Air Force personnel
worked alongside hackers to simultaneously find and fix security
flaws. Together, they found 55 vulnerabilities in nine hours.  “We continue
to harden our attack surfaces based on findings of the previous challenge
and will add lessons learned from this round,'' said *Peter Kim*, the Air
Force's chief information security officer.  “This reinforces the work the
Air Force is already doing to strengthen cyber defenses and has created
meaningful relationships with skilled researchers that will last for years
to come.'' The event was part of the Hack the Pentagon program, which since
launching in 2016 has fixed more than 3,000 vulnerabilities in government

106 down and ... ??? to go.

"Skype can't fix a nasty security bug without a massive code rewrite" (Zack Whittaker)

Gene Wirchenko <>
Tue, 13 Feb 2018 08:50:23 -0800
Zack Whittaker for Zero Day, 12 Feb 2018
The bug grants a low-level user access to every corner of the operating system.

opening text:

A security flaw in Skype's updater process can allow an attacker to gain
system-level privileges to a vulnerable computer.

The bug, if exploited, can escalate a local unprivileged user to the full
"system" level rights—granting them access to every corner of the
operating system.

But Microsoft, which owns the voice- and video-calling service, said it
won't immediately fix the flaw, because the bug would require too much work.

That mega-vulnerability Cisco dropped is now under exploit (Ars Technica)

Monty Solomon <>
Sun, 11 Feb 2018 13:36:33 -0500
Bug with maximum severity rating is generating plenty of interest among

Understanding the Attack Vectors of CVE-2018-0101—Cisco ASA Remote Code Execution and Denial of Service Vulnerability

Monty Solomon <>
Sun, 11 Feb 2018 13:45:49 -0500

How a Low-Level Apple Employee Leaked Some of the iPhone's Most Sensitive Code (Motherboard)

Monty Solomon <>
Sat, 10 Feb 2018 10:30:14 -0500
This is how a small group of friends lost control of the leaked iBoot source
code. The story behind one of Apple's most embarrassing leaks.

Pirates Crack Microsoft's UWP Protection, Five Layers of DRM Defeated (TorrentFreak)

Monty Solomon <>
Thu, 15 Feb 2018 20:46:51 -0500

Cyberattack Caused Olympic Opening Ceremony Disruption

Monty Solomon <>
Thu, 15 Feb 2018 22:16:41 -0500
Internet Breakdowns at Opening Ceremony Were Work of Hackers
Nicole Perlroth, *The New York Times*, 13 February 2018

Security researchers uncovered evidence that the attack had been in the
works since last year. But hackers stopped short of the damage they could
have done.

  ["It appeared that hackers planned to take over the power in the stadium...
  But officials successfully prevented [that] attack."   PGN]

Samsung and Roku Smart TVs Vulnerable to Hacking (Consumer Reports)

Monty Solomon <>
Thu, 8 Feb 2018 19:10:33 -0500
Security and privacy testing of several brands also reveals broad-based data
collection. How to limit your exposure.

FinTech Revolut sends PINs via email

Toby Douglass <>
Thu, 15 Feb 2018 20:37:59 +0000
Revolut is a growing, successful FinTech startup.

They offer a multi-currency account with no fees for currency exchange, and

I have a Revolut Business account.

I today ordered a Mastercard.

I was asked during the ordering process to select a PIN.

After completing the ordering process, the PIN was emailed to me.

With that level of blundering, I am now concerned that Revolut will wake up
one morning to find all the money has gone.

"The House That Spied on Me" (Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu)

Gene Wirchenko <>
Thu, 15 Feb 2018 22:07:59 -0800
Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu, 7 Feb 2018

first and last paragraphs:

  In December, I converted my one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco into a
  "smart home." I connected as many of my appliances and belongings as I
  could to the Internet: an Amazon Echo, my lights, my coffee maker, my baby
  monitor, my kid's toys, my vacuum, my TV, my toothbrush, a photo frame, a
  sex toy, and even my bed.

  I thought the house would take care of me but instead everything in it now
  had the power to ask me to do things. Ultimately, I'm not going to warn
  you against making everything in your home smart because of the privacy
  risks, although there are quite a few. I'm going to warn you against a
  smart home because living in it is annoying as hell.

House Committee votes to terminate the Election Assistance Commission (The Nation)

"Peter G. Neumann" <>
Thu, 15 Feb 2018 16:57:52 PST

In a 6-to-3 vote, the House Administration Committee voted along party lines
to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission <>,
which helps states run elections and is the only federal agency charged with
making sure voting machines can't be hacked.  The EAC was created after the
disastrous 2000 election in Florida as part of the Help America Vote Act to
rectify problems like butterfly ballots and hanging chads.  The Committee
also voted to eliminate the public-financing system for presidential
elections dating back to the 1970s.

Spelling corrector busy changing words many pages back

Dan Jacobson <>
Fri, 16 Feb 2018 19:09:21 +0800
Me again, fighter for software justice. Today we turn our attention to where the forces of evil think it is OK for the
spelling corrector software to go subtly changing words 30 pages back way
off the screen. Sigh.

"Biggest Brazilian newspaper quits Facebook" (Angelica Mari)

Gene Wirchenko <>
Mon, 12 Feb 2018 15:27:37 -0800

Angelica Mari, Brazil Tech, 12 Feb 2018
Folha de São Paulo rebels against the company's news feed changes to
emphasize posts from connections rather than brands.

select text:

Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo has announced it will no longer
post news stories to its Facebook page as a response to the company's
changes to the News Feed algorithm.

According to the Brazilian company, Facebook's policy changes to emphasize
posts from connections rather than brands will reinforce users' tendency to
share content they agree with, thus facilitating the creating of opinion
bubbles. Folha argued that the changes will also increase spreading of fake

"In effectively banning professional journalism from its pages in favour of
personal content and opening space for 'fake news' to proliferate, Facebook
became inhospitable terrain for those who want to offer quality content like
ours," Folha's executive editor Sérgio Dávila told The Guardian.

"Facebook's Very Revealing Text Messaging Privacy Fail"

Lauren Weinstein <>
Sat, 17 Feb 2018 10:08:57 -0800
Lauren's Blog

As I've frequently noted, one of the reasons that it can be difficult
to convince users to provide their phone numbers for account recovery
and/or 2-step, multiple-factor authentication/verification login
systems, is that many persons fear that the firms involved will abuse
those numbers for other purposes.

In the case of Google, I've emphasized that their excellent privacy
practices and related internal controls (Google's privacy team is world
class), make any such concerns utterly unwarranted.

Such is obviously not the case with Facebook. They've now admitted that a
"bug" caused mobile numbers provided by users for multiple-factor
verification to also be used for spamming those users with unrelated text
messages. Even worse, when users replied to those texts their replies
frequently ended up being posted on their own Facebook feeds! Ouch.

What's most revealing here is what this situation suggests about Facebook's
own internal privacy practices. Proper proactive privacy design would have
compartmentalized those phone numbers and associated data in a manner that
would have prevented a "bug" like this from ever triggering such abuse of
those numbers.

Facebook's sloppiness in this regard has now been exposed to the entire

And naturally this raises a much more general concern.

What other sorts of systemic privacy design failures are buried in
Facebook's code, waiting for other "bugs" capable of freeing them to harass
innocent Facebook users yet again?

These are all more illustrations of why I don't use Facebook. If you still
do, I recommend continuous diligence regarding your privacy on that platform
-- and lotsa luck—you're going to need it!

Australian Cabinet Files (Bruce Schneier)

"Peter G. Neumann" <>
Tue, 13 Feb 2018 6:23:38 PST
Bruce notes that he assumes people have heard about the trove of secret
Australian documents left in a filing cabinet that was sold on the used
furniture market.  It's a crazy story.

He suggests noting this excellent political cartoon:

With Closed-Circuit TV, Satellites And Phones, Millions Of Cameras Are Watching (

Richard M Stein <>
Sat, 10 Feb 2018 18:19:40 +0800

This "Fresh Air" program interviews Robert Draper on the subject of video
surveillance.  Surveillance supports criminal investigations via video
capture of street crime; stored in a database for reply during trial. Hedge
funds apply satellite imagery to track commercial shipping traffic for oil
or coal or iron ore, or to observe shopping mall parking lots to estimate
projected sales volume. Surveillance satellites enables environmental
observations, and to track refugee flows that help reduce humanitarian
calamities. US cities receive surveillance funds from the Department of
Homeland security. Camera systems have been deployed without any particular
purpose in mind. 

As the interview states:

  "DRAPER:...Maybe on the other hand, it has resulted in a deterioration of
  privacy, a willing forfeiture of it to the point where, you know, we're
  basically expecting to be both voyeur and exhibitionist 24/7.

  "And we lose not only a sense of privation, but we also lose, you know, a
  sense of anything that's not visual, that we, you know, can't really
  conceive of something like - as a social scientist pointed out to me -
  something like dignity or honor. How do you visualize that? How do you
  capture that photographically? If it can't be seen - as, you know, the
  millennial phrase goes, pics or it didn't happen - then maybe it's not
  there at all. These are the kind of insidious effects of an all-surveilled
  society that I'm still puzzling over and don't have any particular answers
  to but which I think, you know, you see manifested in London certainly
  more than anywhere else.

  "DRAPER: Sure. I mean, what we've really been talking about is kind of
  ground-level surveillance, Terry. But, the reality is, that barely
  encompasses even a fraction of the degree to which we're being watched. I
  mean, OK, there may be 106 million new surveillance cameras sold every
  year, but Americans alone bought 2.5 million drones in 2016 for private
  use, to say nothing of the U.S.  government's arsenal. And even farther up
  in the heavens, there are something like 1,700 satellites that monitor our

George Orwell is spinning in his grave. Couple video or satellite
surveillance with telecommunications metadata and other digital breadcrumbs
to reconstruct a day in the life of anyone.

Someone Is Sending Amazon Sex Toys to Strangers. Amazon Has No Idea How to Stop It

Monty Solomon <>
Thu, 15 Feb 2018 20:51:33 -0500

One Cause of Market Turbulence: Computer-Driven Index Funds (The New York Times)

Richard M Stein <>
Sat, 10 Feb 2018 14:12:11 +0800

  "A decade ago, the center of gravity on Wall Street were raucous trading
  desks and stock exchange floors. These days, the locus has shifted to far
  quieter places, where computers are in charge.

  "The transition has been years in the making, but its effect has been on
  full display over the past week. After propelling the market to historic
  highs, passive investment strategies—which follow a simple set of rules
  and are carried out by sophisticated computer programs, not humans—are
  among the factors fueling the market's recent plunge.

  "This is the new reality of today's stock market: Funds that track
  financial indexes have become a dominant force, and they can act as
  accelerants, adding momentum to the market's rise and fall."

Appears we are all working in a robotic rentier-driven economy.  Rentier: "a
person who lives on income from property or securities."  High-frequency
trading algorithms rule "The Street." 

It seems that "Takin' Care of Business" was never easier for consortia that
operate bot-based advertising, bot-based news generators, and robot
rentiers. A full-cycle feedback loop  -- a self-fulfilling prophecy—with
maybe two buttons at most: earn profit, or disgorge profit. A real "core

News generators might be programmed to skew corporate news reports,
accentuating positive spin to compel HFT algorithms that detect the
steepest-descent language/semantics slope, commanding a "buy more equities
until a threshold is reached," then commence to dump and reap the
profits. Can the SEC trace and correlate this behavior? If so, might be time
for some perpwalks.

Wonder what the next-generation of script kiddies will want for their

Most People Prefer Buying Wireless Devices Through Their Smartphones (TRK)

Gabe Goldberg <>
Fri, 16 Feb 2018 14:28:34 -0500
Costa Mesa, Calif.—More people now prefer to buy their wireless devices
through smartphones then by either going to a store, calling or using a
computer, according to a new report from *J.D. Power*. The study found that
the satisfaction of customers making new wireless device purchases is
highest through smartphones (857 points on a 1,000-point scale), compared
with in-store (842), telephone (836) and other online channels (823). Those
using a smartphone spend an average of 10.6 minutes completing their online
purchase, compared with 13.7 minutes among those using a computer or tablet.
And they also provide higher ratings for website attributes, such as ease of
navigation, appearance of website and ease of making an order.  “The
wireless market is rapidly evolving into a self-contained ecosystem in which
all aspects of the ownership experience, from buying the device to engaging
with customer support, is done entirely on a mobile device,'' said *Peter
Cunningham*, J.D. Power's technology, media, and telecommunications practice
lead.  “While in-store customer service is still key for things like
explaining data usage and demonstrating device operations, the speed and
consistency of the experience delivered via mobile is clearly resonating
with mobile customers.''

The risks? Mistaking convenience and viewing on small screen for reality?

Re: The unstoppable momentum of self-driving cars (RISKS-30.52)

Michael Bacon - Grimbaldus <>
Sun, 11 Feb 2018 08:15:37 +0000
Love the pun in the title!

The results of surveys are coloured by the nature of questions asked.  For
example: "Do you think self-driving cars are better for the over-70s than
driving themselves?" is likely to elicit a positive response across most of
the age range.  See the example of 'how to get the answer required' at from the BBC's Yes Minister
programme (the preceding extract is slightly rude, but detailed knowledge of
the political leanings and content British press is not really required to
appreciate it).

Whilst this is not immediately related to self-driving vehicles, recent
analysis of UK road traffic accident data by the road safety charity
Institute of Advanced Motorists shows that the number of serious accidents
in 20mph zones has increased by a substantial 26% over the last year, and
minor accidents have increased by 17%; serious casualties increased by 29%
and minor casualties went up by 19%.

Interestingly, over the same period, there was a decrease in the number of
serious and slight accidents on 30mph (9% and 5% respectively) and 40mph
roads (5% and 3% respectively).

The cause is thought to be that driver behaviour does not change simply
because a sign says '20' rather than '30'.  It's a not unreasonable
supposition that, although the behaviour of a self-driving vehicle will
change at entry to the lower speed zone, that of human-driven vehicles will
not ... potentially increasing the number of accidents.

Re: The Fake-Follower Factory (NYTimes, RISKS-30.54)

Jose Maria Mateos <>
Sat, 10 Feb 2018 18:00:00 -0500
It is actually quite easy to replicate the plots that the New York Times
used to identify bot patterns. I did a bit of coding and these are the
resulting scripts (Python for data gathering, R for plotting, though there
is no particular reason the entire thing couldn't be done in either of

This is what the final thing looks like:

If anyone wants to start inspecting Twitter accounts, here are some tools.

Re: WHATIS Going to Happen With WHOIS? (RISKS-30.54)

Michael Bacon - Grimbaldus <>
Sun, 11 Feb 2018 09:07:04 +0000
The article that Lance Weistein quotes makes a fundamental error in its
statement that the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which
takes effect on 25 May this year is intended to protect the privacy of EU

The GDPR 'regulates' [Data] Controllers 'operating' within the EU and and
Processors acting for Controllers (wheresoever those Processors are
situate), whilst codifying 'rights' for all natural persons whose data are
processed by those entities - regardless of their nationality or country of
residency.  Thus, the Personal Data of an American who shops online at the
website of UK retailer John Lewis (, will enjoy the protection
of the GDPR.

Basic extra-territoriality comes in the form of the GDPR applying to non-EU
companies which offer goods/services within the EU, for example online using
a TLD of an EU member country ... but again regardless of the nationality of
the individual engaged or their country of residence.

In regard to the reported conflict between the requirements of the GDPR and
ICANN, there would appear to be at least two simple routes, "consent"
whereby the registrant agrees to publication, in something of a reversal of
the current opt-out position, and "legitimate interests" - albeit this will
require clear definition of those ... but they can include other parties'

Concerning is that this is happening at a late stage, with only 72 working
days to the law taking effect ... but this reflects the situation with many
Controllers of all sizes (at least in the UK) and the majority of Processors
across the world.

Re: WHATIS Going to Happen With WHOIS (RISKS-30.54)

John Beattie <>
Fri, 16 Feb 2018 22:03:54 +0000
  Also GDPR

I am wondering if a lot of the privacy issue could be handled by making all
the data that originates on my devices my property.

It would be fine to sell it to Google or anyone else but until I do so, its
mine and using it would be theft.

I think that mediating the transaction via the good old dollar might help
clarify matters a bit.

There are some obvious issues but designing solutions might help us
understand better what we are doing with all these data streams.

So, I suggest that if the buyer aggregates or filters streams then the new
stream would be the property of the buyer.  That limits the ownership of the
originator in a realistic way. Otherwise I can see that the idea is

It would be interesting to include contract clauses indicating how long the
buyer can hold the data for.  Obviously they can do what they like with
their own streams but it would be good to put a time limit on how long the
buyer can hold a copy of someone else's data.

Some streams are more valuable than others: high frequency, low jitter, lots
of measures in each stream element, all these would increase the value.

And there are lots of other possible refinements of course - enjoy!

Denver Airport AGTS marble stairs: Fall risk due to lack of contrast

Shawn Merdinger <>
Sun, 11 Feb 2018 14:39:28 -0500
Love DIA, great airport :)

I wanted to bring to your attention a fall risk.  The area I'm referring to
is after the TSA screening that lead down to the AGTS train—specifically
the marble staircase that is flanked by escalators.

I believe the marble staircase has low contrast that makes it difficult to
visually distinguish each step.  Also, on some points going down the stairs,
the reflection and glare from overhead lighting makes it more difficult to
see the steps.  Each step has 3 thin strips of black anti-slip tape, which
is great for traction, but it doesn't help the visibility or contrast

I have a first-person viewpoint video of me descending the stairs that you
can view at the link below as it's too large a file to email:

Video Link:

In past trips I have not seen many people using those marble stairs down to
the AGTS.  I encourage you to go there and watch how people approach the
stairs and escalators after clearing the TSA checkpoint.  Some folks will
start to go towards the stairs..then look and see the risk...pause for a
moment...and choose one of the the escalators instead.

Please do go see for yourselves!

Of note, according to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine over 1
million Americans of all age groups are injured each year on stairs [1].
And the CDC states falls are the leading cause of injury and death in older
Americans [2].  Laboratory studies on how visual modifications to stairs can
make them safer are publicly available [3].  Finally, the US Access Board
Technical Guide for stairways recommends visual contrast for stairs [4].

I do hope this finds its way to the right people at DIA, and that some
simple measures, like better marking those marble steps will reduce the risk
to passengers who choose to use the marble stairs, and better prepare for
passenger flow when one or both of the escalators leading down to the AGTS
vis in need of repair and folks have no choice but to use the marble stairs.

[3]  "Analysis of lower limb movement to determine the effect of
manipulating the appearance of stairs to improve safety: a linked
series of laboratory-based, repeated measures studies" -

Contra Ovadya on post-truth

John Ohno <>
I originally posted this article here:

Contra Ovadya on post-truth  [long item, saved for last.  PGN] A
recent article by Charlie Wartzel summarizing the perspective of Aviv Ovadya
has become quite popular. This article admits that it is engaging in
scare-mongering, but justifies this by claiming that the situation is bad
enough that we all really should be scared. Certainly, some of the details
are accurate, but—as par for the course for a popular take on a
newly-relevant subject with a long history—there's a great deal of
context missing.

Let's first add a little historical context to defuse a bit of the
appeal-to-authority propelling this article. Ovadya is described as having
“predicted the 2016 fake news crisis'', on the grounds that he made a
presentation about it in October of 2016. This is a very low bar: the
political ramifications of propaganda circulated within
social-media-amplified cultural bubbles was a hot topic throughout 2016, the
same way it was at the tail end of Obama's first term (when the publication
of *The Filter Bubble* coincided with concerns about right-wing conspiracy
theories). *The Filter Bubble* didn't invent these concerns, either—that
book was a (perhaps independent) rehash of concerns about Internet news
expressed on various mailing lists as early as 1992. The term of art back
then for what we now call *filter bubbles* was *the daily me*—as in, a
hypothetical newspaper that, based on personality profiling, shows the user
only the news stories they want to see. We can probably, with a little bit
of effort, trace the ideas back even further; however, I first became aware
of the *daily me* concept back in 2008, in a lecture at the Computers,
Freedom, and Privacy conference—and I was one of the few attending who
wasn't already familiar with the concept, meaning that in the community at
the intersection of tech and social justice, the political ramifications of
fake news on social media was old news ten years ago.  Ovadya's epithet
could be applied to anyone who was reading political coverage in mainstream
news outlets in 2016 just as well as it could be applied to him, so his
authority is not, by that metric, meaningful.

In the absence of the authority of someone who “predicted the fake news
crisis'', we can critically re-examine the claims being made.

The narrative Ovadya & Wartzel paint is one where a fixed, stable,
universally accepted common ontology is being eroded by tech that
manipulates flows of information while simultaneously making forgery easier.
This perspective is shortsighted—it doesn't match history, and depends
upon some dubious assumptions about the homogeneity of culture.

Humans don't live in reality, and we never have. We live in networks of
personal mythology, occasionally shaped and guided by reality's physical
limits on the rare occasions when those physical limits interfere with our
abilvty to maintain false beliefs in ways that are not easily ignored. Our
personal mythologies are a bricolage of (potentially internally
conflicting) heuristics and factoids collected from all the people and
media we interact with.

For a few hundred years, due to the standardization of educational systems
around canons of works deemed important, large groups of powerful people
(the rich, the intelligentsia, and royalty) had substantially similar
personal mythologies.  A literate westerner in the late eighteenth century
could be reasonably expected to be deeply familiar with the bible, classical
mythology, the works of Plato and Aristotle, and a handful of other works,
along with being able to read and write in Latin (and probably French),
regardless of their homeland. A literate westerner a few hundred years
earlier would have probably been a monk who had studied the Trivium and the
Quadrivium. From what I understand, similar highly standardized educational
systems existed in China, established far earlier, and this system was
geared toward state bureaucracy rather than religious institutions --
however, I am not familiar enough with this system to describe it in detail.
The vost important aspect of this situation is that it was not extended to
most people—the poor and illiterate had their own private oral
mythologies, influenced but not fully controlled by religious and state

Improved printing technologies (cheap enough to use for mass entertainment
and education but expensive enough to require a surrounding institution),
universal mandatory education, and various attempts at education
standardization exposed a greater number of people to particular memeplexes
favored by particular groups of powerful people.

It's important to note that, in the United States, this process was part of
a then-politically-radical democratization made possible by access to
low-cost printing technologies by dangerous terrorist subversives like
Benjamin Franklin. When the revolutionary war was won, printers switched
gears from propaganda pamphlets and broadsheets to general material for the
education of a population who needed to be brought up to the minimum
standards people like Thomas Jefferson thought were necessary to keep a
democratic system from falling into tyranny. While today we generally see
this process as a good idea, we should recognize that in the eighteenth
century in europe and the americas, popular vote was seen as two steps
short of anarchy and mass education was not seen as a universal good: from
an outside perspective, we're talking about dangerous political radicals
determining the canon of an education system.

Of course, books were still quite expensive until the 20th century, with the
introduction of paperback pocket books. The 20th century also corresponded
to the development of film, radio, and television—popular formats that,
like book and newspaper printing, depended upon expensive technology and
institutions, and therefore were broadcast. This is the first point at which
we can say that people's personal mythologies began to mostly converge: the
point at which a handful of national TV channels, a handful of
nationally-syndicated radio networks, a handful of large movie studios with
strict control over theatre chains, a handful of big newspaper companies and
book publishers, a standardized education system, and a very active
censorship bureau controlled much of media. This period could be bookended
on one side by the beginning of the Great Depression (when movie theatres
became cheap mass entertainment) and on the other by the late 1960s (when
new limitations on post office censorship and widespread access to Xerox and
Mimeograph machines made a mass non-broadcast culture feasible—what we
call, variously, faxlore or zine culture).

The development of online communities starting in the 80s can be seen as an
extension of this anti-broadcast trend that I trace to the late 60s.
There's a big overlap between early online culture and faxlore, ham, and CB
radio culture, after all. This development has never been apolitical: as
soon as scalable alternatives to broadcast culture appeared, people began to
take advantage of it to create and distribute their own personal
mythologies, and these mythologies have often had a political element (as
with the development of discordianism starting in 1958, the radical
political zines and newsletters on the left right and radically unseen sides
through the 60s, punk zines in the 70s and 80s, and the faxlore origins of
the proto-alt-right in the early 90s with anti-Clinton xeroxed
*factsheets*). These strains made the jump first to Usenet and BBS, then
later to the web.

All of this is to say that, rather than a sudden assault on the edifice of
consensus truth, we are looking at the tail end of a sixty-year return to
equilibrium—the conclusion of an anomalous century of
relatively-homogeneous consensus reality.

Usenet and the Web did something that BBSes (outside of store and forward
networks like fidonet) and zines largely could not—they deterritorialized
or delocalized exposure to alternate realities. People like John Perry
Barlow and McLuhanist media theorists put this in utopian terms, and the
culture jamming movement put it in functional, operative terms. After all,
the broadcast reality is often wrong, and sometimes intentionally so: fraud,
being expensive, was the domain of the powerful, and the democratization of
the means of fraud (or, if you prefer, the democratization of disinformation
construction and distribution mechanisms) was seen as a net
positive. Culture jammers hoped that the good lies and the bad lies will
cancel each other out in open forum.

When we talk about filter bubbles, the problem is not that such alternate
realities exist. Instead, geographically-dispersed clusters of alternative
cultures remain isolated from each other as a side effect of ranking
algorithms. These cultures, which until the 80s corresponded to regions, now
can cross state boundaries in difficult-to-trace ways. Because
representative government is based on geography rather than psychography,
this disrupts attempts to consolidate political power: it's very difficult
to gerrymander around a primarily Internet-centric culture in such a way
that a guaranteed win is possible.

Filter bubbles produce very real problems. The human capacity to ignore
physical reality is impressive—only rarely does even mortal danger shake
us (or else no veteran of active combat duty would consider themselves
religious or patriotic, except perhaps in fairly warped ways: belief in a
sadistic or blind-idiot god, faith that no alternative exists to a zero-sum
politics of global annihilation). Nevertheless, in less extreme situations,
periodic challenges to our Umwelt can indeed cause gradual change, and heavy
exposure to diverse and conflicting alien myths can cause us to critically
reconsider our own mythologies. Lack of exposure to alien myths means that
the alternate realities produced by filter bubbles are just as stable as
those previously produced by geography.

When we are familiar with the perspective of the *other side*, we can
accurately distinguish between likely and unlikely stories—we can
identify disinformation, even if that doesn't impact our willingness to
spread it <>
But, constant and consistent exposure to the same material eats away at our
critical response,
Furthermore, simply pointing out that some stories are false has unintended
<> So, it's
vitally important that we retain that exposure. However, at the same time,
we should not assume that such exposure will rebuild some mythic edifice of
consensus truth: an (often justified) contrarian strain acts against the
consensus, and the centralized power necessary for building the illusion of
consensus can reasonably be expected to use that false consensus to bolster
its own continued power.

Wartzel's article highlights DeepFace, AudioToObama, and similar technology
as mechanisms for supporting widespread fraud in the near future. I have a
couple problems with these specific examples (in part because the
technology is far from convincing, and in part because the limited scope of
these projects and the existence of other related technologies means that
they don't substantially lower the cost of believable fraud
but on a fundamental level, fraud is always a possibility and our sense of
what constitutes reliable evidence depends on a folk-understanding of fraud
technologies. Nobody could use these technologies right now to convince a
layman, let alone an expert, but the hype and scaremongering around them
means that in the near future video will have the same status as
photography in terms of perceived reliability—in other words, considered

The ultimate result of this—since video fraud is still approximately as
expensive as it was 20 years ago—is that more skepticism will be
expressed about *video evidence*, and that skepticism will be expressed
earlier. This will ultimately probably mostly impact the people who have
the resources and motivations to actually fake video evidence. It's
possible in the short term for people to take advantage of existing
cultural bubbles to manipulate this skepticism toward political ends, but
in the longer term we're merely adapting to the state of the reliability of
video evidence in the past several decades.

The time in which we live is unprecedented not for the unreliability of
evidence but for its reliability. Again, we slowly return to equilibrium as
political and technical competition takes advantage of short-term
differences between the perceived and real reliability of certain kinds of
evidence. There are real dangers associated with this manipulation, but
they are not dangers to capital-T Truth but mundane ones—everyday
grifting, political spin, and propaganda. Our best tool against this
particular variety of manipulation is to maintain the accuracy of our
folk-ideas about evidence reliability, not to demonize toys as existential

Framing is very important. Where I agree with Wartzel and Ovadya is that
there are serious systematic problems with the way we route information
between people—problems that cause political schismatism, failures of
empathy, and in some cases direct physical danger. However, Ovadya &
Wartzel's framing of this problem as one of attacks on consensus reality
implies a solution with unfortunate authoritarian tinges: the
reconsolidation of power over information. Instead, I suggest framing the
problem as systematic bias in exposure to information, in ways that limit
the effectiveness of our normal intellectual growth. Rather than rebuilding
the tower, we should be breaking down the walls.

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