Governments are not in Control

No longer master of information (Rex Features via AP Images)

Sweden’s government is in crisis after a government agency accidentally leaked the entire country’s personal details database by offshoring its storage without adequate safeguards.  Two ministers have been fired and the entire government may fall.


Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven confirmed on Monday that private information concerning citizens of Sweden had been exposed to serious security risks after the government outsourced IT services for the Swedish Transport Agency (Transportstyrelsen) to IBM in 2015.

IBM, in turn, left an astounding amount of information exposed to a number of unauthorized users around the world — including the names, home addresses, and photos of every member of the police, secret military units, information from the witness-relocation program, information regarding the weight capacity of all roads and bridges, and details regarding the specifications of all government and military vehicles (and their drivers).

Apparently, the transport agency mistakenly emailed their entire database of sensitive information to marketers in plain text. And upon realizing their error, the agency decided to merely ask subscribers to delete the old message and later sent out an updated one.

Spectacular as it is, the Swedish disaster is just the latest in a seemingly unending series of similar catastrophes of which the OPM records loss , Snowden defection, State Dept secret cable loss, NSA toolkit theft are but a few well known examples.  The casualties flash past like milestones in a blur. Britain’s NHS lost 100,000 patient records the other day.  Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lost his job today due to “documents leaked from a Panama-based law firm” proving he was corrupt. In an age where the media use unnamed sources to launder leaks and section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is allegedly used for political surveillance no one’s secrets are safe. We appear to have entered the age of digital nakedness and not even politicians are immune.  Hillary was supposedly robbed of her election by Russian hackers who stole her secrets and broadcast them though some of the losses may actually have been due the DNC’s own careless selection of fraudsters to run their IT operation.


The information age seems to have caught most “world leaders” unprepared.  Their confident “digital transformation strategies” have finished in a face-plant. Though the Swedish scandal superficially concerns data loss it also underlines how vulnerable traditionally acceptable political corruption and incompetence is in the 21st century.

[what] upsets a lot of people is the fact that everybody was aware they were breaking the law by being negligent with classified information, but just didn’t care. … By now, mainstream media has published documents that show that the Interior Minister and the Infrastructure Minister were completely aware of the ongoing leaks as early as 18 months ago, and they said and did nothing.

Part of what IBM contracted to was run, and which was run from Serbia, was the Swedish government’s secure intranet – the SGSI, the Secure Government Swedish Intranet. This network is in turn connected to the European Union’s STESTA, which is a European Union secure network. This is what the Swedish Transport Agency gave staff in Serbia administrative network access to, and it is no conspiracy theory that Serbia is a close military ally with Russia. While it can’t be proven in this specific case that high-value military information in Serbia’s hands also comes into Russia’s hands, it’s one of those things that should just be assumed in the general case.

The net effect here is that the EU secure Intranet has been leaked to Russia by means of deliberate lawbreaking from high ranking Swedish government officials. Even if there are additional levels of encryption on STESTA, which there may or may not be, this has “should never happen” written all over it.


We’re not in Kansas any more.  Hillary famously claimed she understood the implications of artificial intelligence and robotics but does she really? Did the Swedes really? It’s entirely possible that, despite their show of outward confidence no one fully understands the changes we’ve unleashed, least of all politicians nurtured in bureaucracy. The death of privacy appears to be an externality of the information age just as pollution was the unintended consequence of the industrial revolution.  Nobody knows how much it will cost and the elite doesn’t know how to deal with it.

Though governments pretend to be in control the facts suggest otherwise. Part of the problem is the government’s habit of power.  They’ve had it for so long they think it is theirs by right.  Bureaucrats want the public to remain unprotected by encryption, the better to keep the public safe, though probably the better to keep everyone under control.  And they’re not succeeding.  As Sweden shows government itself is often hardly better off than anyone else. In the near future the only places privacy will survive is in failed states too primitive to keep records or so lawless they’ve torched everything.

The world order has already lost the nuclear containment battle.  It’s lost the immigration battle.   Now it appears they’re about to lose the privacy battle.  Perhaps complexity is finally getting the better of the old global elite.  In a little noted article at the end of 2016 the New York Times noted that for “the first time since World War II that trade with other nations has declined during a period of economic growth … there are also signs that the slowdown is becoming structural. Developed nations appear to be backing away from globalization.”


Europe is fraying around the edges; low tariffs and transportation costs cannot get much lower. And China’s role in the global economy is changing …the share of imported components in products “Made in China” has fallen to 35 percent from 60 percent in the 1990s … China joined this club the old-fashioned way: It used factories to build a middle class. But the automation of factory work is making it harder for other nations to follow.

But no one is quite sure what comes next.  A World Economic Forum paper thinks that globalization is just catching its breath, leaving the physical world and going digital; that business is tunneling mental and even physical services across the wire.  In the new global world nobody will come across the Mediterranean any more, just commute across the Internet. “Digital platforms like Alibaba and Amazon enable even small-scale entrepreneurs to connect directly with customers and suppliers around the world, transforming themselves into ‘micro multinationals.'”

Yet it’s a savage commentary on the World Order if the wire does seem a safer place than a planet haunted by terrorism, war and identity politics and spying.  It is eerie too, as if Harlan Ellison’s dystopic vision of humanity sheltering in the artificial cortex of Trent — “a full-grown man born ten days ago” — until the Kyben threat abated were coming true.  Yet as the Swedish disaster showed, there is no safety — least of all in the government’s version of the Demon with the  Glass Hand.

The mechanisms of the 20th century proved themselves unprepared for the side effects of the technological revolution. The multicultural project never anticipated that an age where Facebook offers its users 71 choices of gender would create so much noise Government could not guarantee safety from the resulting complexity.  They would be so overwhelmed by their own perfection that they cannot “save the planet”.  Perhaps they cannot even save themselves.


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President’s Secrets: The Use and Abuse of Hidden Power, Author Mary Graham tracks the rise in governmental secrecy that began with surveillance and loyalty programs during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, explores how it developed during the Cold War, and analyzes efforts to reform the secrecy apparatus and restore oversight in the 1970s. Chronicling the expansion of presidential secrecy in the Bush years, she explains what presidents and the American people can learn from earlier crises, why the attempts of Congress to rein in stealth activities don’t work, and why presidents cannot hide actions that affect citizens’ rights and values.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer. This book recounts Foer’s year-long quest to improve his memory under the tutelage of top “mental athletes.” He draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of remembering, and venerable tricks of the mentalist’s trade to transform our understanding of human memory. From the United States Memory Championship to deep within the author’s own mind, his journey reminds us that, in every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.

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Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Henry Reeve. First published in 1835, this book endures as a brilliant study of America’s national government and character. Woodrow Wilson wrote that the author’s “ability to illuminate the actual workings of American democracy was “possibly without rival.” For today’s readers, de Tocqueville’s concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful and his observations about the “almost royal prerogatives” of the president and the need for virtue in elected officials are particularly prophetic. His profound insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.

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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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