Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

August 26, 2009

DDoS-ing good policy

Filed under: Political,Social,Technical — cec @ 10:08 pm

In computer security, one of the most difficult and annoying problems is the distributed denial of service attack (DDoS).  The idea behind a DDoS attack is straight forward: the attacker tries to prevent legitimate use of the service by using a large number of other computers.  Usually these other computers have been compromised (hacked) and are following the commands of the attacker.  Such computers are usually called “zombies.”

There are a number of ways to conduct a DDoS attack, but they are typically variations on the following theme.  The attacker instructs the zombies to request access to the service.  But the zombies have no intention of actually using the service, instead, they often forge network traffic so that it’s impossible to tell who is making the request.  Because the zombies don’t want to use the service, they can make thousands of requests without slowing down.  The poor computer hosting the service then sees tens of thousands of requests for access, tries to fulfill the requests and eventually becomes overloaded and dies.  The zombies win.

What makes the DDoS attack so difficult to defend against is that each and every request coming in, looks like a legitimate request.  The problems are: a) the core of the request is a lie (at the direction of the attacker, the zombie has forged the network traffic), and b) the sheer quantity of bogus requests – one or two could be handled easily, 10s of thousands not so much.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing the exact same thing when it comes to creating good policies in the U.S.: a distributed denial of service attack.

The creation of good policies requires discussion.  Ideally, arguments will be presented, the merits debated and evaluated with respect to a set of shared norms, and these discussions will shape the eventually enacted policy.  But on every important issue, this is not occurring.  Instead, we have a group of reactionaries (they’ll call themselves conservatives) who try to prevent the important discussions from ever occurring. Take two issues, global warming and health insurance.

On global warming, we could have a fairly important discussion about the expected costs of global warming, the probabilities of certain events occurring, the expected costs of limiting CO2 in order to limit the effects.  We could discuss the moral issues involved, from the increased rates of disease due to higher temperatures, the possibility of spending more money now on certain social problems, and the moral worth of species that will go extinct because of a changing climate.  There are even scientific questions that remain unresolved.  But instead of having any of those discussions, conservatives persist in lying.  Those lies are then redistributed on Fox News and in conservative publications.  The purpose of the lies isn’t to have a real discussion with respect to a valid scientific point.  The purpose is to attack the very idea that there can be a discussion.  The purpose is to make people believe that instead of global warming being a policy issue, it’s a political one.

A year ago, I was at a family reunion and sat down with my father and uncle who hold advanced degrees in physical sciences (masters and phd respectively).  The topic came around to global warming – perhaps one of them made a derisive comment about it, I don’t recall.  The next thing I knew, these two very intelligent men turned into DDoS zombies.  They brought up a number of talking points that they had heard, but hadn’t actually verified:

  • “Ice cores have shown that temperature rises before CO2 levels.” Historically true, but completely irrelevant.  We know of the causal reason that an increase in CO2 will increase temperature.  A doubling of CO2 will raise the temperature by roughly 3 degrees Celsius.  However, no one has said that the only reason that the temperature can rise is due to CO2 – there are certainly other reasons.  Why temperature rose in those cases is a legitimate scientific question, but rather than discussing that issue, the right uses a misinterpretation of the idea to attack the possibility of global warming.
  • “CO2 only contributes 3% of the effects of greenhouse gases.” Alternatively, you’ll hear that water vapor is 97% or 98% of the total effect.  Nope.  This is a pure, flat out lie.  I spent a few hours trying to track down the source.  It turns out that it’s not a scientific result.  3% never appeared in a peer-reviewed paper.  Instead, someone reviewing one of the IPCC reports decided that the report said 3% (it didn’t) and ever since, right-wing news has thrown around that number to dispute the very possibility that rising levels of CO2 could contribute to global warming.

There were a few other talking points they had and there are dozens more to be found online.  My favorites often come from a site called Watt’s Up With That.  Favorites because they completely demonstrate that people are *actively* constructing lies to deceive the public on global warming.  You read a post there and you go to the original sources that they cite and sure enough, they’ve either taken it out of context or they’ll take the worse of all possible predictions.  My favorite is when the push what amount to linear rather than the actual (exponential) projections of climate change and then argue that because the actual temperatures don’t fall into their bogus projections, climate change is false.

The point is that none of those talking points are serious attempts to debate the science.  They are merely an attempt to overwhelm the dialog with incorrect information in order to delay or kill good policy.  Hell, they aren’t even arguments, at best they are arglets. Fragments of an argument with no real merit.

The arglets against health care reform are even worse.  A handful of people literally make things up and rather than having a discussion about the very real ways our health care system is falling apart, the news media (Fox and others) goes off on these tangents for days.  Consider:

  • “death panels” What a load of crap.  There’s no such thing in the health care bill.  Which is of course, not to say that these things don’t exist.  Every insurance company has a death panel.  Or more accurately, insurance companies consider the amount of rescission activity when evaluating employees, i.e., you’ve paid your premiums for years and when you try to use the policy and the company drops your coverage.
  • “in <scary socialist country of your choice> people have to wait <some large number> weeks for <some medical procedure>.” We hear that one a lot.  Usually, the country is England or Canada, the time is 6+ weeks and it’s a hip replacement.  Of course, this arglet is also untrue, but is interesting in being untrue on multiple levels.  First of course, is the basic lie – delays for surgery. A small nugget of truth – this was a small problem pre-2000, before the British started increasing the amount of money for the NHS.  Then the larger lie – the implication that it’s better here in the U.S. under your insurance.  Then finally, the mother of all lies – that anyone’s even proposing a single payer system like the NHS anyway.  “Oh my god, some other system that no one here is seriously considering has wait times that are as bad as some of ours with insurance, but not nearly as bad as if you have no insurance and have to wait until you’re on medicare to obtain the surgery.”  To borrow a line from a glibertarian idiot – give me a break.
  • Perhaps my favorite recent arglet: “Stephen Hawking never would have survived to be a brilliant physicist under the British system.” Given that he is a British citizen and has always received his health care via the NHS, this is completely crazy, literally divorced from reality, batshit insane.

I could go on and on.  For any topic you can name, there are people promoting lies in order to prevent good policies from being enacted.

Now here’s the part where I tell you the good news based on my DDoS analogy.  Tough – there isn’t any.  There are a few approaches to dealing with a computer DDoS:

  1. Ignore it.  Build capacity so that all requests, legitimate and bogus can be serviced.  This is unlikely to work.  The media has a short attention span, hell they’ve got ADHD.  While the majority of arglets are debunked within minutes of their creation, they continue to live on in the right-wing zombies and the media is incapable of ignoring that.
  2. Identify the source of the arglets and take ’em out.  In computer terms, this often means tracking down the source of the DDoS commands and arresting them.  For dialog, this means identifying the source of the arglets and ignoring them and their zombies.  But then we’re back to solution 1 and the media’s inability to call bullshit.
  3. Ensure that all potential zombie computers are patched, i.e, ensure that potential zombies are innoculated/education against the lies.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t work in a computer context – too many lazy people with computers that they don’t want to take care of.  And it’s unlikely to work in a political context – too many lazy people who can’t be bothered to conduct basic fact check (or even sanity checking) before propagating a lie.

In short, there’s no way for the current political process to work properly while the right wing and various corporate interests are conducting a denial of service attack.  Unfortunately, the only real solution is to circumvent the dialog and pass good legislation regardless of what’s in the press.  For 16+ years, Bill Kristol has advised the right to prevent such a thing.  “Don’t allow good legislation on health care.”  People would like good legislation and would realize that the republicans were a bunch of lying con men who wanted to shovel government money (aka public funds,  aka your money and mine) to corporate interests.  The republicans have gotten good at this and now the only way to pass decent legislation is to ignore them, which is easier and easier given that they’ve flat out stated that they won’t vote for their own compromises.  Screw ’em.  Health care is too important.  Pass it, pass it now.  If you won’t support a single payer option, then at least give people the choice of a public option that’ll be better, cheaper and more efficient than what we’ve got now.

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