The Clinton doctrine

25 January 2010

After the fallout from Aurora, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a major speech last Thursday at the Newseum in DC. Highlights below:

The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet…in many respects, information has never been so free…[but] modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill…

There are many other networks in the world. Some aid in the movement of people or resources, and some facilitate exchanges between individuals with the same work or interests. But the internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them…

…a new information curtain is descending across much of the world…

Governments and citizens must have confidence that the networks at the core of their national security and economic prosperity are safe and resilient…Disruptions in these systems demand a coordinated response by all governments, the private sector, and the international community. We need more tools to help law enforcement agencies cooperate across jurisdictions when criminal hackers and organized crime syndicates attack networks for financial gain…

States, terrorists, and those who would act as their proxies must know that the United States will protect our networks. Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government, and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation. In an internet-connected world, an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all [ed. see article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty]. And by reinforcing that message, we can create norms of behavior among states and encourage respect for the global networked commons.

China denies everything and is trying to change the subject.

The tone of this speech was remarkable. While it is natural to expect that most nations conduct offensive computer network operations against foreign governments and organizations, getting publicly called on it is rare. Most observers have no doubt that the PRC has been infiltrating and attacking US government and commercial networks for strategic ends, and the NSA would not be doing its job if it were not doing the same thing abroad. So even if everything isn’t Marquis of Queensberry you wouldn’t expect to see folks complain too loudly.

But human rights and censorship is another story. There is a simple reason why Cold War rhetoric was recycled in this speech. Regardless of whether Google capitulates or leaves China (any other outcome is unlikely), by going public instead of leaking to the press they have put the PRC on the defensive. As I remarked earlier, Google surely must have known it had the (at least implicit) backing of the US before it (effectively) named names. The administration must have seen this as a golden opportunity to seize the moral high ground. When force of arms cannot be decisive, the justness of a cause still might be.

Random bits

20 January 2010

Arbor’s Worldwide Infrastructure Security Report

The global shipping network

China’s increasing antisatellite…I mean, missile defense capability. Also here.

China and Google

14 January 2010

Time for the (n+1)th dissection of Google’s recent announcement concerning cyberattacks and censorship. (You’ve got to love recursion!)

As Galrahn points out, discounting Google’s market share relative to Baidu isn’t really sensible. They’ve got a lot of market share there, especially for non-search services without strong competitors—but many of these services (YouTube, Picasa, and often Blogger) have been blocked by the Chinese government. That speaks to two things in China: an opportunity for user base consolidation and to a governmental approach to information that is inimical to Google’s business model. More to the point:

For what amounts to only 2% of revenue, Google is threatening to disrupt the internet behavior of at minimum 118 million internet savvy Chinese and believes that fact alone has value in negotiations.

Source: / CC BY 2.0

Is this really a funeral, or will a hundred flowers blossom?

That is, Google is using a casus belli to force an issue that predates their entry into the Chinese market. It doesn’t cost them much to do so. They’ve already got the explicit backing of some other heavyweight Western companies (e.g., Yahoo) and network effects may induce many others to climb on board the bandwagon. They surely have the implicit backing of the US government in pushing back against China (and am I the only one who is thinking about the possibility of honeypots here? No way).

The bottom line is that this is not about a moral stand. By taking things public, Google is creating a negotiating opportunity for what it’s wanted all along from China. The real issue here is not who is “right” or “wrong” but who is going to win. For Google to thrive in China, the Chinese Communist Party’s control over information has to be weakened. For the CCP to thrive in China, it has to retain a monopoly on political power, and this requires controlling the flow of information. Moreover, and as I’ve mentioned before, there is a clear path from China’s cyber strategy to the foundations of its politics. So Google will probably not win much if anything in this skirmish.

The larger point is much more interesting, though. After a decade of undeclared cyber war with Chinese characteristics, this is the first overt public response. China has less to lose from cyberwarfare than the West does. But as it finds what it’s looking for with rampant cyberespionage, China may also find that it is hurting itself.

Random bits

13 January 2010

“Google said Tuesday that it may pull out of China because of a sophisticated computer network attack originating there and targeting its e-mail service and corporate infrastructure, a threat that could rattle U.S.-China relations, as well as China’s business community…[the hackers] appeared to be after information on weapons systems from defense firms and were seeking companies’ ‘source code’”. More from the WSJ. As Richard Bejtlich asks, has China crossed a line? Google will stop censoring search results, which is yet another huge implication for Chinese internal and foreign affairs.

DDoS stats from Arbor

Adobe gets attacked

“Complex software-hardware systems are not proved correct [in 1976], they are not proved correct today, and will not be proved correct in the future. If I am wrong why do we need cyber-security? Why do systems get attacked and broken into every day? Why is security a multi-billion dollar a year industry? I think the answer is obvious.”

National Cyber Range awards

Entropy, entropy, entropy…

Random bits

8 January 2010

768-bit RSA modulus factored. This is basically right on schedule for a Moore’s law fit of largest publicly factored RSA moduli from a RSA technical report dating from 2000. Expect 1024-bit moduli to go down in about a decade.

Visualizing Abdulmutallab. This is supposed to make some sense if you look at it long enough, apparently.

Geolocation hack

IPv4 lives on…for now

Random bits

6 January 2010

Why you won’t recognize the net in 10 years

NSF wants to start a new internet from scratch

On the recent Nature insurgency paper

Random bits

4 January 2010

Holiday round-up edition…

Suricata IDS in beta. Another open-source IDS is a good thing. (But open-source network monitoring will be even better!)

The best defense is a good offense

Switchable DNA nanostructures

Hijacking NetBIOS

Eavesdropping on quantum crypto?

Survey of key exchange security deriving from the Second Law

An approach to subexponential factoring

The use of ideas of Information Theory for studying “language” and intelligence in ants

Random bits

16 December 2009

Fake Steve Jobs wants to DDOS AT&T

Quasicrystals from entropic packing of tetrahedra (NB. the Nature article actually mentions this preprint, which achieves a higher packing fraction)

Random bits

7 December 2009

Two interesting tidbits from Ars…

How robber barons hijacked the Victorian Internet

Bandwidth hogs join unicorns in realm of mythical creatures

Birds on a wire and the Ising model

30 November 2009

Statistical physics is very good at describing lots of physical systems, but one of the basic tenets underlying our technology is that statistical physics is also a good framework for describing computer network traffic. Lots of recent work by lots of people has focused on applying statistical physics to nontraditional areas: behavioral economics, link analysis (what the physicists abusively call network theory), automobile traffic, etc.

In this post I’m going to talk about a way in which one of the simplest models from statistical physics might inform group dynamics in birds (and probably even people in similar situations). As far as I know, the experiment hasn’t been done–the closest work to it seems to be on flocking (though I’ll give $.50 and a Sprite to the first person to point out a direct reference to this sort of thing). I’ve been kicking it around for years and I think that at varying scopes and levels of complexity, it might constitute anything from a really good high school science fair project to a PhD dissertation. In fact I may decide to run with this idea myself some day, and I hope that anyone else out there who wants to do the same will let me know.

The basic idea is simple. But first let me show you a couple of pictures.

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Source: / CC BY-SA 2.0

Notice how the tree in the picture above looks? There doesn’t seem to be any wind. But I bet that either the birds flocked to the wire together or there was at least a breeze when the picture below was taken:

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Source: / CC BY-SA 2.0

Because the birds are on wires, they can face in essentially one of two directions. In the first picture it looks very close to a 60%-40% split, with most of the roughly 60 birds facing left. In the second picture, 14 birds are facing right and only one is facing left.

Now let me show you an equation:

H = -J\sum_{\langle i j \rangle} s_i s_j - K\sum_i s_i.

If you are a physicist you already know that this is the Hamiltonian for the spin-1/2 Ising model with an applied field, but I will explain this briefly. The Hamiltonian H is really just a fancy word for energy. It is the energy of a model (notionally magnetic) system in which spins s_i that occupy sites that are (typically) on a lattice (e.g., a one-dimensional lattice of equally spaced points) take the values \pm 1 and can be taken as caricatures of dipoles. The notation \langle i j \rangle indicates that the first sum is taken over nearest neighbors in the lattice: the spins interact, but only with their neighbors, and the strength of this interaction is reflected in the exchange energy J. The strength of the spins’ interaction with an applied (again notionally magnetic) field is governed by the field strength K. This is the archetype of spin models in statistical physics, and it won’t serve much for me to reproduce a discussion that can be found many other places (you may like to refer to Goldenfeld’s Lectures on Phase Transitions and the Renormalization Group, which also covers the the renormalization group method that inspires the data reduction techniques used in our software). Suffice it to say that these sorts of models comprise a vast field of study and already have an enormous number of applications in lots of different areas.

Now let me talk about what the pictures and the model have in common. The (local or global) average spin is called the magnetization. Ignoring an arbitrary sign, in the first picture the magnetization is roughly 0.2, and in the second it’s about 0.87. The 1D spin-1/2 Ising model is famous for exhibiting a simple phase transition in magnetization: indeed, the expected value of the magnetization for in the thermodynamic limit is shown in every introductory statistical physics course worth the name to be

\langle s \rangle = \frac{\sinh \beta K}{\sqrt{\sinh^2 \beta K + e^{-4\beta J}}}

where \beta \equiv 1/T is the inverse temperature (in natural units). As ever, a picture is worth a thousand words:


For K = 0 and T > 0, it’s easy to see that \langle s \rangle = 0. But if K \ne 0, J > 0 and T \downarrow 0, then taking the subsequent limit K \rightarrow 0^\pm yields a magnetization of \pm 1. At zero temperature the model becomes completely magnetized–i.e., totally ordered. (Finite-temperature phase transitions in magnetization in the real world are of paramount importance for superconductivity.)

And at long last, here’s the point. I am willing to bet ($.50 and a Sprite, as usual) that the arrangement of birds on wires can be well described by a simple spin model, and probably the spin-1/2 Ising model provided that the spacing between birds isn’t too wide. I expect that the same model with varying parameters works for many–or even most or all–species in some regime, which is a bet on a particularly strong kind of universality. Neglecting spacing between birds, I expect the effective exchange strength to depend on the species of bird, and the effective applied field to depend on the wind speed and angle, and possibly the sun’s relative location (and probably a transient to model the effects of arriving on the wire in a flock). I don’t have any firm suspicions on what might govern an effective temperature here, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see something that could be well described by Kawasaki or Glauber dynamics for spin flips: that is, I reckon that–as usual–it’s necessary to take timescales into account in order to unambiguously assign a formal or effective temperature (if the birds effectively stay still, then dynamics aren’t relevant and the temperature should be regarded as being already accounted for in the exchange and field parameters). I used to think about doing this kind of experiment using tagged photographs or their ilk near windsocks or something similar, but I can’t see how to get any decent results that way without more effort than a direct experiment. I think it probably ought to be done (at least initially) in a controlled environment.

Anyways, there it is. The experiment always wins, but I have a hunch how it would turn out.

UPDATE 30 Jan 2010: Somebody had another interesting idea involving birds on wires.


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