Belmont Club

Managing Knowledge Too Dangerous to Exist

Social network diagram Wikipedia

Everyone knows the shootdown of Isoroku Yamamoto relied on the knowledge of his itinerary The P-38s were waiting for him. More recently, Hellfire armed drones were ready to receive Qassem Soleimani:

The Americans were waiting for him.

Armed with a tip from informants at the airport in the Syrian capital of Damascus, the CIA knew exactly when a jet carrying Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani took off en route to Baghdad. Intelligence from Israel helped confirm the details.

Knowledge is power. The Soleimani strike, like Yamamoto’s, was made possible by information. The routine of heads of state is sensitive information, as is everyone’s to a greater or lesser extent. So why did the government of Australia briefly consider requiring all citizens to install a smartphone contact-tracing application based on Singapore’s Tracetogether? Because it seemed worth the high price in privacy to fight the Coronavirus.

TraceTogether uses Bluetooth to create a record of other nearby phones that also have the app, but it does not track their location … the app’s data will be fully encrypted, and ‘close contacts’ will be shared with health authorities only after an individual has tested positive and consents to sharing their information.

Gathering that data creates a risk not only to privacy rights but even individual security, but some thought it worth the cost. “The French are cautiously considering digital tracking, which has proved effective in Asia. But can a country that so prizes personal freedom and privacy ever accept it?”

French culture could be changing, along with those of other Western democracies as they struggle to adjust the balance between personal privacy and the public good while attempting to reopen their societies and economies without setting off another wave of coronavirus infections.

In Italy, politicians have proposed blood tests to detect antibodies to the virus before licensing people to leave their lockdowns. President Trump may push for hiring hundreds of people to perform contact tracing as part of his effort to allow Americans to go back to work and school.

And in France, as President Emmanuel Macron extended a nationwide lockdown by at least another month this week, he said his government was considering using a smartphone tracking app that would inform people if they have come in contact with an infected person.

From the technical point of view, the battle to preserve privacy is already lost. While a given tracking app may not record your location, that information is logged in other databases. When that data is tied together, anonymity vanishes. The NYT wrote in December 2019:

“If you own a mobile phone, its every move is logged and tracked by dozens of companies. No one is beyond the reach of this constant digital surveillance. Not even the president of the United States.

The Times Privacy Project obtained a dataset with more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million people in this country. It was a random sample from 2016 and 2017, but it took only minutes — with assistance from publicly available information — for us to deanonymize location data and track the whereabouts of President Trump.”

All that is left is legal permission to collect, organize, and exploit this information in ways that were previously forbidden. Such information once gathered becomes potentially hazardous, even if there is no intention to misuse it. Like nuclear materials, they are magnets for theft as is dual-use biological material. From 2013- 2015, the previous administration lost an entire federal personnel database to China. A national contact-tracing database could potentially contain movement patterns and related biometric information incomparably more valuable. If you build it, the hackers will come.

And though diplomatic sensitivities make US officials reluctant to point fingers, a wealth of evidence ranging from IP addresses to telltale email accounts indicates that these hackers are tied to China, whose military allegedly has a 100,000-strong cyber­espionage division. (In 2014 a federal grand jury in Pennsylvania indicted five people from one of that division’s crews, known as Unit 61398, for stealing trade secrets from companies such as Westinghouse and US Steel; all the defendants remain at large.)…

The hackers had first pillaged a massive trove of background-check data. As part of its human resources mission, OPM processes over 2 million background investigations per year, involving everyone from contractors to federal judges. OPM’s digital archives contain roughly 18 million copies of Standard Form 86, a 127-page questionnaire for federal security clearance that includes probing questions about an applicant’s personal finances, past substance abuse, and psychiatric care. The agency also warehouses the data that is gathered on applicants for some of the government’s most secretive jobs. That data can include everything from lie detector results to notes about whether an applicant engages in risky sexual behavior.

The hackers next delved into the complete personnel files of 4.2 million employees, past and present. Then, just weeks before OPM booted them out, they grabbed approximately 5.6 million digital images of government employee fingerprints.

In an economy where the truest measure of wealth is human capital, the loss of a log file laying out who is working with whom could allow an adversary to figure out what’s going on. The potential loss of privacy is damaging in another way. Individuals are disincentivized if they can’t protect the secrets they create. Spontaneity is dampened when Big Brother is watching you.

Governments are beginning to realize that privacy is a national economic and security asset that must be protected. For example, the UK has moved to drop Huawei as a 5G vendor, citing China’s coronavirus lack of candor.

“We need to devise a proper, realistic exit strategy from relying on Huawei,” Conservative Member of Parliament Damian Green told Bloomberg News. “Our telecom providers … need to know the government is determined to drive down Huawei’s involvement to zero percent over a realistic timescale.”

“The mood in the parliamentary party has hardened,” said Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative Party’s chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

“It’s a shared realization of what it means for dependence on a business that is part of a state that does not share our values,” Tugendhat said.

Beijing’s attitude of “what’s mine is mine and what’s your is also mine” creates information imbalances. Even before the pandemic, China signaled it was going to march to a different drummer.

If you want to conduct groundbreaking but contentious biological research, go to China. Last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced he had created the world’s first gene-edited human babies, shocking the world at a time when such practice is illegal in most leading scientific nations. More recently, US-based researcher Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte revealed he had produced the world’s first human-monkey hybrid embryo in China to avoid legal issues in his adopted country.

Yet if China is fast becoming the world capital of controversial science, it is not alone in producing it. More babies produced using the “CRISPR” gene-editing technology are now planned by a scientist in Russia, where another researcher is also hoping to conduct the world’s first human head transplant. And Japan has recently lifted its own ban on human-animal hybrids.

The world is rapidly moving towards a two-tier system of cutting-edge medical research, broadly divided between countries with minimal regulation and those that refuse to allow anything but the earliest stages of this work.

When runaway technology threatens to trigger a destabilizing competition, societies have fallen back on verifiable limitation agreements like naval holidays or nuclear arms control treaties. The Biological Weapons Convention attempts to ban the development of offensive biological weapons but is hampered by insufficient verification. “The Biological Weapons Convention is riddled with gaps and loopholes. First, biological weapons research is not prohibited. Second, the Article I limitation to biological agents or toxins “that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes” constitutes an enormous loophole since “protective” and “peaceful” applications cannot reliably be distinguished from hostile military applications.”

This creates the opportunity to link the bioweapon research verification problem to the proposed surveillance programs warning of coronavirus and future pathogens, in the process fixing some of the problems of each. Surveillance programs can provide a powerful means of detecting the traces of illegal experiments, escaped pathogens, or tests of bioweapons in populations. But to be useful, the data must be verifiable and shared. There can be no double set of books. Being subject to international verification will discourage states from collecting more than minimally required because it would never want to gather data its adversary may see.

Since neither biological experimentation nor mass surveillance can now be contained by technical countermeasures alone, our only recourse lies in increasing the costs of surreptitious malevolence while simultaneously reducing the incentive to create databases too risky to be left lying around.

Choice has played an important role in human survival. It survived the nuclear age not because weapons got weaker but because people decided not to use them. Technology by itself has failed and will always fail to make humanity any safer by itself. This is because each revolution — the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age, Atomic Age, Space Age — has left mankind exactly where he was in relation to himself. Homo Deus with every godlike advance has found Homo Diabolus dogging his heels with equally potent methods of destruction. It is ethics, spirituality, culture — choice, not just technique — that time and again has turned the scales. The lesson of the nuclear age is that humanity must for some reason choose to live; the atom will not make that choice for him.

What is less apparent is that cooperative survival may require ‘shared values.’ There is little scope of lasting cooperation with those who crave power at all costs or who ‘just want to watch the world burn.’ To what sacred thing we shall appeal if fear fails to deter those who seek advantage is unknown. Something has always turned up in the past.

Follow Wretchard on Twitter or visit

Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, by Jim Mattis and Bing West. This is a book on leadership as seen through Jim Mattis’s storied career, from his wide-ranging leadership roles in three wars to ultimately commanding a quarter of a million troops across the Middle East.

The Centurions, by Jean Larteguy. Now back in print, this military cult classic has resonance to the wars in Iraq and Vietnam. When it was first published in 1960, readers were riveted by the thrilling account of soldiers fighting for survival in hostile environments. They were equally transfixed by the chilling moral question the novel posed: how to fight when the “age of heroics is over.” As relevant today as it was half a century ago, this book is an extended symposium on waging war in a new global order and an essential investigation of the ethics of counterinsurgency.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert A. Caro. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest books of the 20th century, this book is a galvanizing biography of one man’s incredible accumulation of power, as well as the story of the shaping and mis-shaping of New York in the 20th century.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.

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

Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle, why government should get small

No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.

Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.