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Gentlemen Reading Each Others' Mail: A Brief History of Diplomatic Spying

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A map of major telegraph lines in 1891. (Wikimedia Commons)

The British government intercepted the emails and phone calls of foreign dignitaries attending the 2009 G20 meetings in London, according to the latest tranche of leaks released by the Guardian.

Among other tactics, the British intelligence agency GCHQ set up fake internet cafes for delegates to use in order to log their keystrokes, broke into their BlackBerries, and kept round-the-clock records of phone calls during the summit. Meanwhile, Americans monitored the phone calls of former Russian president and current prime minister Dmitri Medvedev.

The revelations have already infuriated Russia and Turkey, and they are sure to raise some eyebrows at this week's G8 summit, which is also being hosted by Great Britain.

"At a time when international co-operation depends on mutual trust, respect and transparency, such behaviour by an allied country is unacceptable," a spokesman at the Turkish foreign ministry said.

And yet, spying on your allies has long been a staple of international diplomacy -- dating back to the first embassies established by 16th century Italian city-states, where cryptanalysts would slice open the wax seals of intercepted, coded messages with hot knives before deciphering them.

Before the advent of email, modern spy agencies had to break codes hidden within telegraphs in order to read them. And in at least once case in the early 20th century, the U.S. government used surveillance and codecracking to score a major diplomatic victory against Japan during a major international meeting.

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Herbert Yardley was a former railroad telegrapher who later became a government "code clerk." He proved the value of his code-breaking chops throughout World War I, and after the war the State Department officially set up a "Cipher Bureau." (As if that name wasn't nefarious-sounding enough, it was also known as "The Black Chamber.") It was America's first permanent code-cracking agency, and it was the precursor for today's National Security Agency. Yardley became the head, setting up the offices on East 38th Street in New York, across the street from a department store. He and his wife lived on one floor, and the bureau took up the rest of the building.

(Why New York? "Washington is overrun with spies," Yardley said, without any apparent irony.)

At the time, diplomatic messages were written not only in foreign languages, but also with some words substituted with numbers or code words. It was the Cipher Bureau's job to make sense of the code and then translate the entire message.

David Kahn, who has written extensively about Yardley and code-breaking, said it was not unlike solving a puzzle:

"It was about looking at frequencies and guessing at what they were," Kahn said.

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The bureau largely concerned itself with cracking messages sent by the Cheka, the Russian secret police, and by various South American governments. But by far the big codebreaking target was Japan.

"Its naval growth menaced American power in the western Pacific. Its commercial expansion threatened American dominance of Far Eastern markets," Kahn wrote in a book about Yardley. Yardley didn't speak Japanese, but he at one point told his boss he would resign within a year if he couldn't crack the Japanese codes.

There were a number of ways to eavesdrop on a telegraph, but Yardley found the easiest. He and his employees would simply go down to the local Western Union office and ask the telegraph operators for copies of the Japanese messages, Kahn said. And like Facebook or Google in today's NSA scandal, the workers found it hard to say "no."

A golden opportunity to spy on the Japanese came in 1921, during a conference that aimed to limit naval capability among the world's powers as a way of curbing the war-ship arms race at the time.

The U.S. wanted Japan to concede to having fewer ships, but Japan wanted slightly more. With Yardley's code-cracking, the U.S. discovered that it was more important to the Japanese to preserve their relationship with the U.S. than to be able to spend more on their navy.

"We pressed hard, and Japan abandoned its position that it wanted to build more," Kahn said. "We won a great victory for not just the U.S., but for the whole world because we built fewer war ships and we had more money to build roads and for other infrastructure."

For their hard work, Yardley and his staff received Christmas bonuses -- an almost unheard of practice in the federal government -- which ranged from $37 to $184, or 2.5 percent of their salaries. He was also awarded the Army's highest noncombat decoration, the Distinguished Service Medal, "for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services in a position of great responsibility."

Yardley's success was short-lived, though. The Cipher Bureau was shuttered in 1929, shortly after the arrival of Henry Stimson as the new Secretary of State. Apparently, Stimson thought this type of surveillance was unethical, and he issued what is perhaps one of the best foreign policy statements ever:

"Gentlemen do not read each others' mail."

And yet, they continued to. Intercepting private messages picked up within Cipher Bureaus all over the world during World War II, and such spying became a staple of the Cold War, Kahn says. Cryptanalysis became a major strategy employed by almost all the major world powers, including France, Germany, and -- you guessed it -- Great Britain.

That's not to say that what the British and American surveillance teams did during the G20 was right or even fair, just that it's not entirely new.

"During war time, we solved codes once again. We've continued that ever since," Kahn says. "That's what he whole fuss is about at the present."

    


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Martin_English
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Martin English, NSW, Australia
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India's Last Telegram Will Be Sent in July

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A stamp for the Indo-European Telegraph, circa 1967 (Shutterstock/rook76)

In 1850, the British inventor William O'Shaughnessy -- who would later become famous for his early experiments with medical cannabis -- sent a coded message over a telegraph line in India. His telegram would usher in a new age of communication in and for India, connecting the country in a way that had never before been possible. 

Now, sometime on July 14, 2013, someone in India will have a dubious honor: he or she will send the country's last telegram. The Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, India's state-run telecom company, will shutter its telegram service, bringing the long era of Indian telegraphy from a dash ... to a full stop.

The shuttering comes seven years after Western Union ended its telegram service -- and nearly 170 years after Samuel Morse sent the United States's first telegraphic messages, between Washington and Baltimore, in 1844.

The shuttering of the service is not surprising. In a country that has quickly embraced, if not fully adopted, mobile technologies, the telegram has become largely redundant as a method of quick, long-distance communication. BSNL's telegram service had been losing money -- and lots of it -- for years. "We were incurring losses of over $23 million a year because SMS and smartphones have rendered this service redundant," Shamim Akhtar, general manager of BSNL's telegraph services, told the Christian Science Monitor.

And, indeed. As the Monitor notes:

At their peak in 1985, 60 million telegrams were being sent and received a year in India from 45,000 offices. Today, only 75 offices exist, though they are located in each of India's 671 districts through franchises. And an industry that once employed 12,500 people, today has only 998 workers.

Then again, though, a shrunken industry is not necessarily a dead industry. As V.A.N. Namboodiri, a spokesman for the union representing 250,000 employees of the state telecom, noted, telegrams "are still used by military personnel for official use and also for contacting their families from remote locations." Governments and banks still use them for official communication: in India, the Monitor reports, a whopping 65 percent of daily telegrams are sent by the government. And they're often used for legal communication and record-keeping, as well. 

Telegrams can also play a cultural role in India. "A number of telegrams are from runaway couples who marry secretly because their parents wouldn't let them marry in the wrong caste, class, or religion," the Monitor notes. The couples send telegrams not only to the families themselves, but also to the police and the National Human Rights Commission -- so that, if the family threatens violence against the unapproved marriage, there's a paper trail. The telegrams function, in this case, as a kind of insurance policy. 

Unions of the labor variety, given all that, have urged Indian telecom minister Kapil Sibal to keep the telegram service running, even as a shadow of its former self. "It is a valued service and should be kept as a skeleton service and preserved as a heritage," one union told The Hindu. But niche uses weren't enough to convince the BSNL to keep its doors -- and its telegraph lines -- open. The telegram service is a business. And like most businesses, an end to profitability means, simply an end. Or in this case: a STOP. 

Via @stevesilberman

    


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How the Music Industry Explains Inequality, Globalization, Middle-Class Decline ... Basically Everything

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Alan Krueger's thoroughly entertaining economic speech (that phrase is not an oxymoron.) at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (that address is not a typo.) is a potpourri of cool factoids, but the bottom line is that if you want to understand economic inequality in the U.S., start with the music industry.

Here's the evolution of the "winner-take-all" music biz, where the top 1 percent of artists have more than doubled their share of ticket revenue since 1982 ...

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... and here's the evolution of the "winner-take-all" American economy, where the top 1 percent of earners have doubled their share of national income, too.

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The simplest way to explain both trends in the same breath is to say that globalization and technology have conspired to give the world unprecedented access to the best stuff (songs, socks, smartphones). This gives the best producers (of songs, socks, and smartphones) access to more wallets than ever. And that helps the folks behind the world's best songs, socks, and smartphones use their best-in-class status to gobble up more money than ever before.

But the most interesting way that the music industry teaches us about the overall economy isn't income inequality, exactly. It's duplicability.

Once you can copy something, its price goes to zero. You can copy a song file. You can copy a video of a song file. These things aren't unique. But a live concert is. So look what's happened to prices. In the last 30 years, listening to music has become cheaper than ever, while watching live performances has grown more expensive. "The price of the average concert ticket increased by nearly 400% from 1981 to 2012," Krueger said, more than twice the rate of inflation.

In many ways, the middle class jobs crisis in the last half-century has been a crisis of replicability. Last century, the pool of manufacturing workers for U.S. companies was limited by the bounds of the contiguous United States. They made decent wages. In the last 30 years, those same companies have learned that Chinese people, Vietnamese people, and varieties of robots perform the same tasks for less money. As the labor pool doubled and doubled, manufacturing work in the U.S. disintegrated.

The same way that concerts (i.e.: unique, local music events that can't be duplicated) have come to dominate the music business, local "non-tradable" industries have come to dominate job creation in the last generation. As I've written, about half of the net jobs created between 1990 and 2008 were in education, health care, and government -- local industries shielded from the duplicative forces of globalization and technology, since we don't visit doctors in China or take Econometrics from robots (yet).

In a world of plenty, the real value is in scarcity. YouTube links are about as scarce than the labor capacity to stitch a sock. Meanwhile, in the same global economy, rare talent can reap "pop star"-level rewards. Abundance giveth and taketh away.



    
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THE RIGHT TO WORK

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“It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is miserable.”
US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons


From Wikipedia “The right to work is the concept that people have a human right to work, or engage in productive employment, and may not be prevented from doing so. The right to work is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law through its inclusion in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, where the right to work emphasizes economic, social and cultural development.”

For many years during my corporate life I had the opportunity and privilege to attend the annual Tallberg Forum in the village of Tallberg in Northern Sweden. The forum would pull together about 500 leaders from the worlds of commerce, politics, government, labour unions and youth representatives, as well as various thought leaders from all corners of the world, to meet, mingle and discuss issues facing the world.

From the Tallberg Foundation website “… leaders of over 70 nationalities break out of their daily lives and come together in the village of Tällberg. For five days, they talk about and reflect on global governance and the frameworks necessary for global sustainable interdependence. The Tällberg Forum makes no declarations and issues no recommendations. Its aim is to provide leaders from business, government and civil society as well as influential thought-leaders with a forum to discuss important issues in a calm and inspiring environment. The Forum’s result lies in the many initiatives and ideas that the participants bring back home and integrate in their actions as leaders.”

In the last year that I attended I was asked to take part in a panel discussion on “Globalisation and Human Rights”. The other panel members tended to focus on the impact of globalisation on some of elements in the United Nations list of about 30 human rights including the right to get an education, the right to medical care, the right to have access to clean water, the right to breathe clean air and so on.

Author: Wilfried Huss/anonymous; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Wilfried Huss/anonymous; via Wikimedia Commons


I had taken a slightly different approach, as I had felt at the time (and do so even more strongly now) that we were tending to overlook one of the most fundamental rights that has always differentiated those with opportunities in life from those who will struggle, being the right to work.

In 1951 my family, of Polish extraction, emigrated from Europe (France) to Melbourne in Australia through the support of a refugee organisation. My parents wanted to escape the hardships in Europe after the war, and had heard that Australia was a land of opportunity with work readily available for people with skills. My father was a shoemaker and had no troubles finding a job. My mother took a job as a housekeeper for a local widowed professor, and my father worked in a shoe factory, standing at a shoe last for 10-12 hours per day, and brought piece work home for the evenings and weekends, to ensure that they could build a better life for the entire family. Initially they focussed on buying a home so as to build a stable environment, and also on educating their three children. They had real hope in their ability to build a better future life, in the belief that the role of every generation was to make life easier for the one to follow.

Photo © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Photo © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


They had an unshakeable belief that the right to work was a privilege rather than a hardship.

I was reminded of this recently, when I was asked to speak to a group of young French university graduates on the subject of “The Global workplace”. Having spent my entire working life flitting around the world (New Zealand, Australia, USA, Singapore, Germany, France), I was invited to do this guest lecture, as being someone who had some first-hand experience with crossing national employment borders.

What I found most fascinating was that I got another reminder of the French obsession with retirement, (see “I live to work or I work to live” posted July 5, 2010), as one of the liveliest discussions that I had with this group of young people in their early twenties was their concern that based on changing global age-driven work patterns, they were most likely looking forward to actually having to work for over 40 years to a retirement age of about 70. They went even more a-twitter when I suggested that “if they were very lucky, the retirement age was more likely to be 75-80 (if there was a mandatory retirement age at all when they got to the 2060s), giving them more than 50 years of work ahead of them” (see “Why keep mandatory retirement ages” posted February 28, 2011).

The fact that young educated people in their 20s could fixate on retirement, when they were only just starting out on their careers really bothered me, as I have already worked for over 45 years, and am looking forward to working forever, if given the chance. As the wonderful comedian and wit Steven Wright says “I plan to live forever. So far so good”. I would just add “work” to his plan.

When we live in an environment in Europe where there are nearly 27 million people (11.0%) unemployed in the EU-27, with 6 million (24.0%) unemployed under the age of 25, the ability to be able to work at all (let alone having the right to work) has become a serious privilege rather than a hardship (Data from European Commission, Eurostat).

There are now some countries in the western world that have numerous and growing examples of 3 generations of unemployed in the same family. This is the single greatest destructive force of human hope that I can imagine, notwithstanding the importance of education, clean air and water, and medical care.

As said so well by the 26th President of the US, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

Author: Scott Catron (User:Zaui); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Scott Catron (User:Zaui); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I believe that all work, no matter how menial, is worth doing, and worth doing well. A professional is not measured by what he does, as much as by how he does it.


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Sneak Peak on gapingvoid Laptop Covers

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office art laptop_decal
[Sent out in today’s newsletter etc.]

Yay! gapingvoid laptop decals [in beta]. We’ve been doing laptop decals for our corporate clients for a while. Gapingvoid images printed on this super polyester fabric. It fits perfectly on an 11″*13″ Macbook and is re-peelable, reusable. You can change them up, put them on walls, or glass partitions or whatever.

There is no sales page for them yet, but you can order custom images for $50 by emailing us here. They’ll go on cube walls and will never damage the surface you apply them to. You can also customize them with your company logo, so you can spread the good word with your awesomeness embedded.

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The Ethics of Big Data: Vendors Should Take A Stand

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big data graphic iceberg 690

I have

big data graphic iceberg thumbnailbig data graphic iceberg 690

I’ve been working in analytics for over twenty years, and have witnessed first hand how these technologies have made the world a better place. I’ve seen thousands of examples, from every type of corporate efficiency imaginable, to improving customer satisfaction at theme parks and or making better use of limited blood supplies.

Yet So far we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to “big data analytics.” There are many different definitions of this term, but my favorite iceberg. My favorite definition of big data analytics is “using data that was previously ignored because of technology limitations” and those limitations are falling away fast, leading to cascades of new opportunities. fast.

We can now gather, correlate, and analyze information in ways that were unthinkable in the past. The book “The “The Human Face of Big Data” Data” does a particularly good job of rounding up some of the most interesting stories of how these technologies will touch our lives.

However, with great power comes great responsibility. Analytics is a very powerful weapon, and weapons can be abused.

The past clearly shows that without proper controls, there can be irresistible temptations for companies and governments to combine data in ways that threaten personal liberties. Misuse of every previous data gathering technology has eventually come to light, sometimes only decades after the facts, leading to new laws re-establishing privacy limits.

Modern technology makes the potential threat much greater than in the past. Combining “metadata” from online activities, mobile devices, payment systems, surveillance cameras, medical histories, and social networks can reveal every nuance of our online and offline lives.

While nobody is arguing that the Thought Police exists today, for the first time since I first read George Orwell’s “1984” thirty years ago, we have their technology capabilities:

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.”

Analytics is, at best, a wonderful opportunity to shine light into the dark, to reveal what was previously concealed, and make it better. People and governments must be in the forefront of establishing clear, transparent guidelines that make the right tradeoffs between the public good and citizen’s rights.

We should not wait for abuses to come to light before acting. One common refrain that defends data gathering is “if you’re not doing anything wrong, what are you worried about?” – if this were true, it should surely also apply to the organizations currently storing and using our data in “secret” ways today.

I believe the vendors of analytics software should play a part in this debate, help encourage data safety and transparency, and provide the technology features that makes it easy for organizations to support these initiatives.

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Martin_English
3913 days ago
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Talks about business collecting data, but also applys to #PRISM
Martin English, NSW, Australia
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