The Year of Checking Facts

Washington is going to be consumed with confirmation hearings this week, with too many for me to count. Confirmation in the broad sense is going to occupy a lot of our time and attention this year because of the abundance of fake news, false allegations, and dubious social media interactions. Some false claims are easy to debunk, but others are downright murky. This post will address one of each.

 The Man Who Didn’t Invent Email

Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, Wonkette, Valleywag, Gizmodo, and a number of other tabloid-style blogs lost a lawsuit last year to Hulk Hogan. The suit determined that Denton violated Hogan’s privacy by posting a copy of a sex video Hogan had made that included some racist outtakes. The most notable feature of the suit was its financing: Peter Thiel paid Hogan’s legal expenses because he had a grudge against Denton. Everybody knows that.

The settlement had a little detail that didn’t get as much attention as it deserved: Denton was required to pay $750,000 to one Shiva Ayyadurai for contradicting Ayyadurai’s claim to the invention of email. In brief, Ayyadurai wrote a program called EMAIL in 1979, but email as we know it has been in use since the early 1970s. The articles on Gizmodo on the email controversy have been taken down, but Wikipedia has a fair account of the controversy:

Writing for Gizmodo, Sam Biddle argued that email was developed a decade before EMAIL, beginning with Ray Tomlinson’s sending the first text letter between two ARPANET-connected computers in 1971.[21] Biddle quoted Tomlinson: “[We] had most of the headers needed to deliver the message (to:, cc:, etc.) as well as identifying the sender (from:) and when the message was sent (date:) and what the message was about.” Biddle allowed for the possibility that Ayyadurai may have coined the term “EMAIL” and used the header terms without being aware of earlier work, but maintained that the historical record isn’t definitive on either point. Biddle wrote that “laying claim to the name of a product that’s the generic term for a universal technology gives you acres of weasel room. But creating a type of airplane named AIRPLANE doesn’t make you Wilbur Wright.”[22]

I personally used two corporate email systems in 1977 that had all the important features, one at Electronic Data Systems and another at Texas Instruments.

The Prior Art is Clear and Well-Documented

Email experts such as Dave Crocker point to documentation well prior to the date of Ayyadurai’s claimed invention: RFC 385, RFC 733 and RFC 822. If this issue were in the patent courts, Ayyadurai would lose decisively. But it wasn’t, and in fact the issue was one of defamation rather than invention. Ayyadurai’s lawyer is back on the case with a lawsuit against Mike Masnick, the founder of the TechDirt blog. Masnick has called Ayyadurai a “fraud,” “liar” and a “fake.” The suit alleges that Masnick’s colorful language has harmed Ayyadurai.

I have issues with Masnick’s abusive tone and agenda (he’s opposed to meaningful copyright enforcement) as a general matter, but Ayyadurai didn’t invent email. If the suit teaches anything, it will be whether there are limits to the kind of language a blogger can use in criticizing people who actually deserve to be chastised. I can accept that Ayyadurai wasn’t aware of Internet mail when he wrote his EMAIL program, but by now he has to know about the prior art.

My own opinion on this controversy is that there is very little difference between email and telegraphy, but that’s a more abstract view than many engineers hold.

Did Russia Really Hack the Election?

While the email invention controversy is very straightforward, there are still a number of open questions about the extent of Russia’s involvement in the elections as well as the effects of that involvement. DHS issued a report on January 6th explaining their reasons for believing that Russia was deeply involved in hacks on the DNC and the Clinton campaign, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”.

The report sheds a lot of light on the Russian hacks, but it’s wrapped in a disclaimer about the difficulty of attribution in cyberattacks as well as the need to maintain confidentiality regarding sources and methods. The issue is that while cybersecurity analysts can trace a specific attack to a specific source, the source that can be determined through technical analysis isn’t necessarily the original source. If someone reads a confidential email on your computer while you’re away from your desk, technical analysis of the computer can’t say for certain who read it. There may be other clues from eyewitness or cameras, but the computer itself doesn’t reveal the information.

So it’s a lot easier to know that an attack took place on point A from point B than to know whether there’s a point C controlling the attacker. This is the “attribution” problem in cybersecurity. As the DHS report puts it:

An assessment of attribution usually is not a simple statement of who conducted an operation, but rather a series of judgments that describe whether it was an isolated incident, who was the likely perpetrator, that perpetrator’s possible motivations, and whether a foreign government had a role in ordering or leading the operation.

So we can attribute with a high degree of probability but not necessarily 100% certainty. Perhaps China ran the attack and made it look like Russia. This isn’t likely, but it’s logically possible. It’s unlikely because of forensic clues and also because of the facts about Putin and Russia. Russia runs a comprehensive propaganda operation in the US, consisting of the RT TV channel, paid mouthpieces, and social media presence. Cyber-snooping fits right into this picture, and I have to wonder whether it’s appropriate to consider RT TV hosts Ed Schultz and Thom Hartmann to be Russian agents.

Did Russia Affect the Election Outcome?

DHS is reluctant to claim that the Russian activities directly affected the vote count. Despite pre-election concerns about the integrity of voting machines, this wasn’t a factor. Instead of trying to break into voting machines, Russia simply did all it could to to undermine Secretary Clinton and swing support to Mr. Trump or to the third party candidates.

During the last week of the campaign it appears that there was a significant shift from Clinton to Stern and Johnson, perhaps enough to change the outcome in the three key states that determined the outcome. And Clinton campaigned under a cloud of doubts about her integrity and competence, but much of that was either her own doing or the result of the relentless campaign against the Clintons that began during the Clinton presidency.

Mr. Trump insists that the Russian hacks didn’t affect the outcome of the election. That may be true, but it’s nothing more than a guess. This question is beyond the limits of knowledge today. And it probably always will be, but some additional analysis on voter decision-making may make it more clear. I suspect we’ll be discussing it for some time.

But for the moment, the only answer the question posed in the section’s title is “we don’t know”. So unlike the Shiva Ayyadurai affair, there’s a significant unknown here. That’s fact-checking for you, some things are known to be true, others are known to be false, and yet others are unknown.