December 2, 2012

Information Making Itself Free

“Information Wants to Be Free” is the oft-heard rallying cry of the Internet cognoscenti. Pick up the paper over the last few days, read about the Syrian government’s shutdown of the Internet and mobile networks, and a story begins to emerge as to just how far technology has come in making information free.
            This graphic from Internet delivery network Akamai tells the story of old information control techniques applied to the new uprising in Syria. On November 29, at 10:30 in the morning, the Syrian Internet was shut down.

              The Syrian Minister of Information blamed “terrorists” for disrupting service. Another official blamed unspecified “technical problems.” The prevailing assumption, however, is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered the shutdown in an effort to deny opposition forces the ability to coordinate their activities and keep the outside world informed. Such a shutdown was possible by simply altering the routing tables handling connecting traffic. Mobile phone service was also shut down in selected areas.
It is a tried and true approach to controlling government opposition. Both Moammar Gadaffi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt shut down mobile and Internet service as they struggled to cling to power. But as Egypt and Libya both proved, it is a 20th century response whose effectiveness is limited by the multiple paths of 21st century technology.
            Shutting down access to information is a response as timeless as repression itself. During the original Information Revolution of the 15th century the Church tried to throttle printing in order to stop the spread of the Reformation and the Renaissance. The practice continued as technology introduced new networks into the centuries that followed.
During the Cold War the control of information was essential to Soviet domination of the people. Over 20 years ago, in the office of the president of MTV Europe, I saw a photo on the wall that graphically illustrated this reality. In the picture a Soviet tank stood in front of a television station in a Soviet republic. As the Iron Curtain fell, the struggle for control between pro and anti-Soviet forces in the republics often revolved around who controlled the broadcast airwaves. The photo of the tank in front of the TV station was inscribed by the ultimately successful insurgent leader – who became the republic’s president – to the effect that even a tank couldn’t stop the people’s desire for freedom of information (in this case he tongue-in-cheek joked it was  “I want my MTV”).
            In retrospect such repression seems so simple as to be almost quaint. Prior to digital networks mass communications was a one-way street and controlling the flow of information was as simple as a few soldiers and a tank at the TV and radio station.
            Today everyone with a smartphone is a potential TV station. The ability of individuals to create both video and text commentary has eliminated message control. While it may be possible to shut down some of the networks that allow the insurgents to communicate, access to multiple pathways makes total information control significantly more problematic. The nature of information control has thus evolved. Controlling information dissemination Soviet-style is ultimately futile when information proliferates from a universe of interconnected users.
            Key to the irrepressible multiplicity of information creators is a similar multiplicity of pathways. In the analog days the pathways were limited; control the printing press and the airwaves and you controlled the vast majority of information movement. The ongoing experience in Syria demonstrates, however, that, even when the Internet and terrestrial mobile networks are taken down, technology opens other pathways.
“To get around a near-nationwide Internet shutdown, rebels have armed themselves with mobile satellite phones,” the New York Times reports. For months, in anticipation of just the kind of shutdown now being experienced, the opposition has been smuggling in satellite phones and alternative communications equipment. Even old dial-up modems are being pressed into service to exploit the landline network.
The digital explosion of information creators and distribution networks is the continuation of a 500-year odyssey. It has been over half a millennium since Johannes Gutenberg picked the lock that had kept ideas sequestered and controlled. In the intervening centuries the struggle for control of information has been a constant. What we are seeing in Syria is the further stretching of the continuum that dates to Gutenberg. It is a heartening manifestation that as information pathways proliferate the flow of ideas and information cannot be constrained.

November 5, 2012


            The debates are over. The political commercials are (thankfully) in their last runs. The presidential campaign action now moves to GOTV - Get Out The Vote - and the ground game to get supporters to the polls.
            This year the presidential campaigns - particularly the Obama campaign - have focused substantial resources on a final GOTV push. But it pales when compared to another son of Illinois’ GOTV in 1864.
            Abraham Lincoln was convinced he would not be re-elected. Ten weeks before Election Day he asked his cabinet to sign the outside of a sealed document they were not allowed to read. Inside the president had written, "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he can not possibly save it afterwards."
            The week after Lincoln passed the paper around his cabinet meeting, the Democratic Party nominated General George McClellan as their candidate for president. "The People are wild for peace," New York's powerful Thurlow Weed had previously written Secretary of State William Seward, adding, "I told Mr. Lincoln that his re-election was an impossibility."
            The president who described himself as, "more of a politician than anything else," responded with proven political tactics. Winning elections was about getting your supporters to the polls. Abraham Lincoln believed his support resided in the men who were bearing arms to preserve the Union. It was difficult for many of those soldiers to vote, however. In 1864 only 17 states had changed their procedures to allow soldiers to cast absentee ballots from the field. In five states - Indiana, Illinois, Delaware, New Jersey, and Oregon - soldiers could only vote in person at home.
            Thus, Lincoln wrote General William Tecumseh Sherman, "The State election of Indiana occurs on the 11th of October, and the loss of it to the friends of the government would go far towards losing the whole Union cause. The bad effect upon the November [federal] election, and especially the giving the State Government to those who will oppose the war in every possible way, are too much to risk...Indiana is the only important state whose soldiers cannot vote in the field. Any thing you can safely do to let soldiers, or any part of them, go home and vote at the State election, will be greatly in point."
            Although Lincoln’s request of Sherman specifically stated that the furloughed soldiers "need not remain for the Presidential election [the following month]," Indiana governor Oliver Morton wired the president the day after the state election (and the governor's reelection), "I most earnestly ask that their furloughs be extended by a special order until after the Presidential Election." The president wired Gov. Morton in response that he had specifically told Sherman those furloughed did not have to remain for the November election. "I therefore can not press the General on this point." Then, having established the record of being good to his word, Lincoln deftly opened the door to granting the governor's wish: "All that the Sec. of War and Gen. Sherman feel they can safely do, I however, shall be glad of."
            Governor Morton seized upon the opening. In a telegram to the president and secretary of war he observed, "It is my opinion that the vote of every soldier in Indiana will be required to carry this state for Mr. Lincoln in November." There were similar exchanges from other governors.
            It was not, however, just a matter of non-absentee states that concerned Abraham Lincoln. Thirteen of the 17 states that allowed voting from the field segregated those votes from the "home vote" at local polls. The president worried about the impact on the credibility of an election delivered by the vote of men under his command. Therefore, his administration worked to furlough soldiers in key electoral states so they could return home to cast their vote as a "home vote" rather than an "army vote."
            The result of this effort was illustrated by General George Thomas's order, a week before the election: "By direction of the honorable Secretary of War you will grant furloughs to the 15th instant to all enlisted men belonging to regiments from the following States, who are in hospitals or otherwise unfit for field duty: Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Connecticut, and Massachusetts...Transportation to be ordered to and from their homes." All told, thousands of soldiers were furloughed to return home to vote in battleground states.
            Lincoln's GOTV worked. The president carried 55 percent of the popular vote and all but three states. In the hindsight of history Lincoln probably would have won without this extraordinary effort. Making history in real time, however, provides no such hindsight opportunity. On November 6, 2012 the presidential campaigns will be practicing just what Abraham Lincoln did in November of 1864, delivering votes to the polls.
This is adapted from my book "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War (HarperCollins 2006) 

November 2, 2012

A "Mobile Payments" Election in Our Future?

            Just two weeks before Americans go to the polls the mobile payments venture of AT&T, TMobile, and Verizon launched in Salt Lake City and Austin. Today Isis is about shopping; before long the technology it and other mobile payment platforms are adopting could reshape the democratic process.

            At the heart of all the near field communications (NFC) platforms is a SIM card with a secure element that verifies the user. The secure element expands the SIM’s normal authentication and authorization with higher-grade smartcard-like verification.

            Right now, everyone is talking about the “mobile wallet.” At this point it looks like a jump ball with multiple parties maneuvering for position. In addition to the U.S. carriers in the Isis consortium, GSM carriers throughout the world are mounting their own NFC push. The action is not limited to mobile operators, however; retailers Walmart, Target, Best Buy and CVS have joined the fray with their own MCX consortium. Visa and MasterCard both have their own initiative. And, of course, the highly-valued start-up Square, as well as PayPal, Google and Apple all have their own solution.

            As if this isn’t enough confusion under the jump ball, there is a Cold War between mobile operators and Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS regarding who provides gateway and mobile transaction services. Carriers want their hardware SIM to control; Google and Apple want a software-based SIM that gives them the leverage. This is no small faceoff since whoever owns the SIM also owns the customer relationship.

            It will be a while before all these competing forces are resolved and there is stability in the mobile wallet world. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, however, all this activity means there will be a major push to get secure SIMs into the market. That is when really interesting other things will begin to happen.

Repeatedly, mobile applications intended for one purpose have morphed into non-obvious user-driven applications. What began as a 25-pound car phone in the trunk morphed to replace landlines and connect more citizens of the planet than any network in history. What began as a control channel Short Messaging Service for network engineers was discovered by consumers who now send billions of text messages daily. What began as a secure mobile payments platform will no doubt follow a similar path into new, non-obvious applications.

            Korean mobile operators, for instance, have become the agent to secure the government’s database of all citizens. Since Internet activity in Korea requires the user to input their national ID number, those numbers were ending up in Website databases. After one of those databases was hacked in 2011 the government and carriers developed an improved process. When a mobile user registers with their ID number the phone number is automatically matched with the registered user’s SIM and sends back a one-time PIN via SMS. The user then inputs the PIN to confirm their identity. In essence, the carriers have become the administrative authority that prevents hacking and keeps valuable personal information off of Websites.

            In Estonia the same kind of SIM and PIN made that country the first in the world where it is possible to vote via mobile phone in national elections. Online voting using the national identity card’s chip and a special PIN had been available since the local elections of 2005. In 2011, however, that was extended to mobile devices. In that election 24.3 percent of the electorate voted electronically without going to the polls. The Republic of Moldova is reportedly about to roll out the same mobile voting capability for its citizens. In Brazil two weeks ago voters in Rio de Janeiro’s municipal election cast ballots by secure mobile phones.

Mobile voting in municipal elections or small countries (Estonia has 1.3 million population, Moldova 3.3 million) is one thing; the expansion into a nation of 300 million would be another challenge. The absence of a national ID card, like in Korea, Estonia and Moldova, is also an issue. Secure mobile devices, however, just might provide the pathway to a solution.  When passports, credit cards, and other personal-identification functions use secure chips that are verified by a hard line connection, the extension into mobile devices can’t be too big a stretch.

This election in the U.S. has seen state legislatures enacting restrictive voting rules allegedly for the purpose of stopping hypothetical voter fraud. The ultimate anti-vote fraud measure may be coming to everyone’s pocket and purse. If a secure chip is good enough to verify our citizenship at passport control it should be good enough to authorize the democratic right of citizenship. If mobile wallet security is good enough to be used for secure financial transactions it should also be capable of providing secure electoral transactions.