24 December 2013

Little Green Men

Little children the world over dream of flying in space ships and meeting aliens from distant galaxies. Indeed many adults share the same fantasies! We all have our idea of what aliens might look like, mostly influenced by media and movies. We might imagine little green men with giant skulls, or perhaps we think of ultra-thin gray beings with bulbous, black, cat-shaped eyes. But if extraterrestrial life does actually exist, and the odds that it does are quite good, would it look like we imagine? Would it resemble humans or other terrestrial creatures, living or dead, from Earth’s history? Would alien life even be carbon-based, like life on Earth? If so, would we be able to cohabitate with aliens on their planet or our own? Does this have implications for the future of human life? Determining the answers to these questions, and more, is the responsibility of a little known scientific specialty called Astrobiology.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Astrobiology is “the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.” Such a broad description means that Astrobiologists have an unbelievable amount of data to study. Their first source of data is, of course, the only planet that scientists have truly intimate knowledge of, Earth. Starting here, scientists collect and examine data and compare what is discovered to what we know of other solar bodies.

Astrobiology grew out of a slightly older science called exobiology, which focuses on discovering the presence of biosignatures, or unambiguous signs of life, on other planets and planetoids in our solar system and beyond. Starting in 1996, NASA founded the Astrobiology Program and in 1998 established the Astrobiology Institute. Research in exobiology is now a major component of the NASA Astrobiology Program. This program’s overarching goals are to determine the origin of life on Earth and in the Universe, the habitability of bodies within our solar system and beyond, and what the future might hold for Earthlings. This last concern is especially important to many, as the looming fear that Earth will not remain habitable forever – or even for much longer – hangs overhead like a dark cloud.

To address the above-mentioned concerns, Astrobiologists must ask and seek the answers to three fundamental questions. The first question concerns the origin of life in the universe: “How did, and does, life originate and evolve?” The second question concerns the habitability of other extraterrestrial environments and whether or not we could even find them: “Does life exist beyond Earth and, if so, what are the ways that we might be able to detect it?” Finally, the third question is the one that is too often handled by the science-fiction community: “What does the future hold for life beyond planet Earth and other planets in the universe?” Each of these questions must be dealt with carefully, incorporating known data sets, integrating new data collection techniques, reexamining old questions and answers, and relying on the ingenuity and creativity of a multitude of scientists, including astronomers, biologists, anthropologists, and geologists. The above-mentioned NASA Astrobiology Institute, or NAI, supports the use of “focus groups,” made up of teams of scientists all focusing their attention in one area to gather evidence for and answer a specific question or set of questions regarding the origin of life in the universe.

In order to answer the question of how life began and how it evolves into new and dynamic life forms, including intelligent life forms, Astrobiologists use information from their home planet. Due to advances in modern genetics, we know that the biological set of instructions for all life on Earth, or DNA, is comprised of four basic amino acids: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. The term nucleic acid is used as a general term for these four building blocks of DNA and, along with some other amino acids that serve special purposes, such as uracil, RNA. All living beings on Earth are carbon-based organic beings – that is to say, they are made up of complex molecules based on carbon which are significantly more intricate than carbon monoxide (CO) and the very common carbon dioxide (CO2). In fact, looking at all life on the planet, despite the differences in appearance, the underlying structures between all creatures are actually very similar. As famed scientist and educator Carl Sagan put it, “There are not many different kinds [of life]; there’s only one kind."

Modern scientists have a good grasp on what makes up life but there are differing theories on how it exactly started. Through research on comets and other celestial bodies and through missions to other planets, we know that organic material is in no short supply in the universe. As far back as the late 19th century, Sir William Huggins discovered C2 was in abundance around a comet using a spectroscope. The C2 discovered by Huggins was leftover after the comet had reacted with solar wind and energy and the parent molecules were dispersed.

Wherever the comet came from was carbon-rich. Observances of stars and planets in more recent times tells us that not only is carbon abundant throughout the universe, but so is nitrogen, hydrogen, methane, and even water vapor. In this sense, the universe is crawling with organic building blocks. What’s more, carbon-based nucleic acids have been shown to replicate themselves in the laboratory!

Through geological studies of rock formations, and paleontological and biological studies of fossils, scientists have a determined the approximate age of the Earth and of the first complex life forms. The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, while the oldest complex fossils discovered, stromatolites, are approximately 3.5 billion years old. Stromatolites are not quite as complex as many of the life forms found on Earth today, but are not simple single-celled organisms either. Since the Earth has a rather tumultuous beginning and wasn’t habitable until around 4 billion years ago, it only took around 500 million years for complex carbon-based life to form. Famed geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane suggests that this rapid origin of life comes from the process of fermentation, or life without oxygen. He surmises that Earth’s early atmosphere had high amounts of carbon dioxide, supplying the carbon needed for life, and low amounts of oxygen, which allowed ultra-violet, or UV, rays from the Sun to reach the oceans. The Sun’s energy synthesized organic material when UV rays penetrated the oceans, a combination of carbon dioxide, ammonia, and water, and began to produce a food-filled environment Haldane calls a hot dilute soup. This soup produced so much organic material to feed the process of fermentation it would have been difficult for life to not persist. In fact, it must have synthesized numerous times within the hot soup, using the power Sun’s energy, and any process that happens numerous times, especially in a relatively short amount of time, must be a somewhat simple process (see Occam's Razor).

In this respect, it appears that the origin of life, under the right conditions, is a simple process. Once the originating forms begin popping into existence, competition for survival increases, and natural selection takes over. Some organisms may need to start synthesizing sugars and other organic material without the help of the Sun, while others may compete for particular food sources. As long as there are selective mechanisms (i.e., mutations, adaptations, or other variations between organisms in a particular environment) to work against, natural selection, and thus evolution, begins. In a nutshell, natural selection posits that those organisms with a physical advantage in a given environment will live longer and produce more. The result, of course, is a world rich in biodiversity.

Based upon what we know of the totality life on this planet, through living creatures and plants, and through the fossil record, complex carbon molecules can produce a seemingly unlimited number of possible life forms. However, we are only aware of one kind of life, and it is carbon-based, leaving scientists hard-pressed to even imagine other possible building blocks for life. With that in mind, scientists can search for environments with a carbon concentration, along with some other traits, in the hopes of possibly finding the early formation of life and to answer the second question of Astrobiology – that of habitability. A foremost indicator of potential habitability is the presence of water. Astrobiologists and Exobiologists focus a significant amount of time looking for water and organic material on planets and bodies within our solar system because they allow scientists to conduct in situ, or “in position,” observations.

The Viking 1 and Viking 2 missions to Mars in the 1970s are two famous examples of landing crafts with a biological mission component. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your view), soil samples taken from two very different locations neglected to yield positive signs of life. In May 2008, the Mars Phoenix landed on the red planet bringing about new discoveries in the existence of water and ice including capturing images of Martian snowfall. More recent rover missions to Mars have yielded even more information on the planet’s current and past water activity and a number of geological processes that have occurred on the planet over time. In fact, the Spirit rover accidentally uncovered deposits of near pure silica, a sign that the planet likely had steam vents in its past, the presence of which is favorable to microbial life. Furthermore, large amounts of calcium carbonate were detected by the rover, another sign that wet, warm, and non-acidic conditions, again favorable for microorganisms, once existed on the now dry and rather frigid planet.

The existence of water is telling, but it doesn’t necessarily equal life. Other factors also contribute to the suitability of a planet to harbor life. Looking at Mars, scientists can say that life may have existed at some point, but the conditions of the planet, such as rapid climate changes, lack of a stable, oxygen-rich atmosphere, lack of a strong magnetic field similar to Earth’s, and distance from the Sun may not be conducive to any extended existence. Does this mean that Earth is unique in having all the right characteristics for life? Notorious “new atheist” and zoologist Richard Dawkins doesn’t think so. In his international bestseller, The God Delusion, Dawkins says:

It has been estimated that there are between 1 billion and 30 billion planets in our galaxy, and about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Knocking a few noughts off for reasons of ordinary prudence, a billion billion is a conservative estimate of the number of available planets in the universe. Now, suppose the origin of life… really was a quite staggeringly improbable event… as to only occur on only one in a billion planets… even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets – of which Earth, of course, is one.

He goes on to support his idea of life on a minimum billion planets by showing that the chemical recipe for life need only arise on one in a billion billion planets to be suitable for explaining life on Earth. The probability of the right conditions for habitability is almost certainly more probable than one in a billion. Especially considering that there is no reason to suspect that there is only one path to life. On Earth skeletal material can be comprised of calcium carbonate, like that of mollusks and other invertebrates, bone and cartilage, like mammals and other vertebrates, silica, like that of protozoa and slime molds, or chitin, such as is seen in lobsters, crabs, and other arthropods. From evidence gathered over years of biological research, it appears the evolution of the skeleton has occurred upwards of six times. The same should be expected of other organs that allow for species advancement. Take the human brain which, of course, allows our species to better understand the environment and anticipate upcoming events. We have no reason to believe that this is a particularly human characteristic or that it is a particularly improbable occurrence. Rather, we should assume the opposite, that it is just as likely to occur wherever life occurs, based on the theory of natural selection. However, even with the conservative estimate of a billion planets harboring life and no reason to believe that such life will not evolve into intelligent life, the universe being as vast as it is does not make the chances of finding such life especially favorable.

Finally, what many scientists may consider the hardest question to answer, by its very nature a prediction, the issue of the future of human life as resources become depleted on Earth hangs in the balance. NASA scientists are working on several projects to find potential future homes for Earthlings, including the SIM Lite Astrometric Observatory, formerly the Space Interferometry Mission, and the Terrestrial Planet Finder, or TPF. SIM Lite is planned to launch in 2015 with the goals of identifying terrestrial planets in habitable, or goldilocks, zones, determining the age of the Milky Way Galaxy, investigating energy streams and jets from celestial masses, and determining the size of the universe, among other things. The TPF mission, while still in the conceptual phase, has a specific focus to study every aspect of all known, and newly discovered, planets outside of our solar system. Scientists hope to determine the number of stars and planets, how they formed, and evidence of their habitability, to include potential for life in the future. Even if potentially Earth-like planets are found, the ability to reach them and to do so in a practical amount of time are still indeterminable factors at this point. This is not to mention whether the life that may live on the planet will welcome the introduction of a new intergalactic species as permanent guests or not.

It is easy to imagine little green men on a planet not too outrageously far away. Indeed, many people, particularly not-very-highly-educated Americans, who tend to live in the Midwestern states, believe they have seen unidentified flying objects or have been abducted by aliens (usually when no one else is around). The notion of a technologically advanced extraterrestrial species coming to Earth to probe colons is considerably far-fetched. However, the likelihood of life existing elsewhere in the Universe is not. Astrobiologists certainly have their work cut out for them in their search for such an existence. The future of human life could depend on it.

29 November 2013

Perceptions of Time

Watching the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, The Day of the Doctor, got me thinking a lot about time. Time is a difficult thing to define and describe. Think about it for a second, which is, of course, just a bit of time. How would you define "time?" We know that different people, and indeed whole peoples, perceive time differently. Here is what Dictionary.com says about time:

1. the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; indefinite and continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another.

In the U.S. we see time as a commodity. Time is money. This is particularly true in certain places in the U.S., mostly urban areas in the Northeastern part of the country. Researchers were able to determine that the 3 fastest cities in the U.S. are Boston, Buffalo, and New York City. They did this through observations of pedestrians, bank tellers, and postal clerks. Coincidentally, the three slowest-paced cities are Shreveport, Sacramento, and L.A. While the three slowest cities are highly urbanized areas, especially L.A., the pace of life in the South and West are probably influenced by factors that include urban sprawl, less people per square mile, and a higher percentage of non-European ethnic groups.

Psychologists have also noted that people who act as though they have more time to accomplish particular task do actually have more time. How is this possible? Are ordinary people influencing the bending and twisting of time? Of course not. Instead, they are dealing with the stresses of time differently than those who feel the mental pressures that come with being hurried.

So, time is perception. Or, rather, time is relative. This is easily explained in the old adage, "Time flies when you're having fun."* It is common for people to think time passes quickly when they are enjoying themselves and that time drags when they're watching the clock. Indeed, watching a clock tick can actually cause the brain to perceive time moving backward. The eyes move back and forth rapidly and send electric messages to the back of the brain for interpretation. Because the eyes are constantly moving, the part of the brain that interprets sight is far away from the organ that sees, and the brain must flip and process the information it gets (all while performing other functions), the brain has to fill in the gaps in data. For this reason, the second hand appears to move more slowly, or even move backwards when being ogled.

Time is an abstract concept and we tend to think of it in abstract ways. For example, many of us, Young Earth Creationists excluded, have a vague idea of when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. And when we think of dinosaurs, we often think of them existing together. But the actuality is that the Mesozoic Era was about 186 millions years long and while dinosaurs existed for roughly that period of time, no one individual species did. Rather, there were huge gaps in time between various species. In fact, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, "The distance in time between Tyrannosaurus and Apatosaurus (formerly called Brontosaurus) is more than the time between Tyrannosaurus and your parents, about 65 million years." Imagine that: we live in time closer to the T. Rex than the T. Rex lived to some other dinosaurs!

Even scaling back to the last few thousand years, similar time perceptions abound. The last Pharaoh of Egypt was Cleopatra, who lived from 69 BCE to 30 BCE. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built during Pharaoh Khufu's reign between 2589–2566 BCE. Thus, Cleopatra lived closer to the Industrial Revolution, the first airplane, the moon landing, the invention of the Internet, and everything else that happens for the next 475+ years than she lived to the building of that pyramid. To confuse things a little more, the boy king, Tutankhamun, reigned over Egypt about halfway between the two.

Speaking of the Industrial Revolution and the moon landing, it is no surprise that technological advances result in the quicker passage of time before the next technological advancement. Homo habilis, also known as the Handy Man, was the first species in the genus Homo and lived approximately 2 million years ago. Handy Man is the earliest known tool-maker. While Homo habilis is much more ape-like than modern human-like, we can say that human, or Homo, technology began with him and his Olduwan stone tools. It took about 900 thousand years to get from simple bangers and scrapers to a stone axe and another 100 thousand to control fire.

Around 200 thousand years ago, Homo sapiens burst onto the scene and technology begins to pick up the pace. About 100 thousand years ago, a wide array of stone stools are used by ancient humans. By 15,000 BCE, humans have domesticated animals, made clothing from a wide range of materials, been storing food and other items in ceramic pots, and crafted all sorts of ideological art, mostly out of clay, wood, and stone. Between 8000 BCE and 0 BCE, copper, bronze, and iron tools and weapons are smelted, the wheel and writing systems are invented, vast cities with enormous buildings rise up, and geographically dispersed bartering systems are adopted. In the next 1900 years, the world goes from isolated pockets of people to a true global society with major advances in science and the invention of large ships, the steam engine, railway systems, the printing press, and the telephone.

Over the last 113 years, technology has increased exponentially, from the first automobiles and airplanes to space flight, nuclear weapons, the internet and mobile technology, and large hadron colliders that allow us to smash subatomic particles together to study particle physics and quantum mechanics. All of this has happened since the first ancient humans walked the Earth, between 2.4 and 1.4 million years ago. And the Earth is 4.54 billion years old! To put it into perspective, if all of Earth's history were compressed into a 24 hour period, modern humans wouldn't show up until about 40 seconds before midnight.

I could keep waxing philosophical about time, and I likely will in future posts, but for now I will share some interesting time-related facts that I found while Google surfing the last few days. But before I do, I would like to pose the question, does time have a direction?

Fun facts about time:

Will Smith is now older than Uncle Phil was when Fresh Prince of Bel Air started.

All of the blinking in one day equates to having your eyes closed for 30 minutes.

The average person will spend 25 years asleep.

Rock beneath Niagara Falls is worn away at a rate of about a metre a year by the flow of water from Lake Erie 165ft above.

Bristlecone pines are the oldest single organisms on Earth, some having lived more than 5,000 years.

The average U.S. city commuter loses 38 hours a year to traffic delays.

Time changes over time. Because the Earth’s rotation isn’t perfectly reliable for how we define a second and tidal friction from the sun and moon slows our planet's rotation, the length of a day actually grows by 3 milli­seconds per century. This means that in the Mesozoic Era, each day only lasted 23 hours.

Because time slows with Earth’s slowing rotation, a “leap second” must be added every few years, most recently this past New Year’s Eve.

The world’s most accurate clock, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado, measures vibrations of a single atom of mercury. In a billion years it will not lose one second.

Einstein was able to show that gravity affects time. Gravity actually slows time. As a side effect, airplane passengers, age a few extra nano­seconds each flight because they are further away from the gravitational pull of the Earth's core.

According to quantum theory, the shortest moment of time that can exist is known as Planck time, or 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 second.

Time has not always existed. Many scientists believe it was created at the same time (pun intended) as the rest of the universe during the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago.

As there is a beginning, there shall also be an end. But don't worry, most scientists believe it is about 4 billion years away, judging by the currently observable expansion of the universe. Many guess that humans will be long gone by the time time stops.

And this is one for the faithful: According to 17th Century Archbishop of Armagh James Usher, the Earth was created on the evening of Saturday, October 22, 4004BC. He determined this by adding up the family histories mentioned in the Bible going all the way back to the creation of Adam and Eve. (I know, I know - it's not a fact!)


* It is important to note that one study shows that time seems to go more slowly for study participants when they listened to music they enjoyed.

07 November 2013

Evolutionary Bias in Social Engineering

Last year I was invited to talk at the Brain Tank Minicon in Providence, Rhode Island. Having recently spoken at numerous other conferences on a rather narrow set of IT security-related topics, I decided to take my talk in a different direction. Now, I present a blogged version of that talk: Evolutionary Bias in Social Engineering.

While I have spent the bulk of professional career in cybersecurity, my academic background is in anthropology, the study of man. So, in a sense, my experience is a mix of Indiana Jones and Kevin Mitnick. Then again, anthropology has four main subfields – archaeology, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and biological or forensic anthropology – the latter three being where I tended to focus. And, while I was once more active on the technical side, I now mostly supervise staff or run vulnerability management, so, I suppose I’m more of a Temperance Brennan meets Michael Scott. While this isn’t the best combination for being popular in social settings, it does provide me with a unique perspective on social engineering.

Social engineering, or SE, simply put, is con-artistry. It is trickery and deception. It is the act of manipulating the human. And anthropology can provide insight into both sides of the issue: the attacker and the victim.

As stated above, anthropology is the study of man – or more accurately, the study of humans. Anthropological studies come in many forms, from researching old tomes to digging up old house wares to observing peoples in various environments to conducting surveys to affecting policy to studying non-human animals. Whatever broad subject matter the anthropologist is researching, it generally falls under one of the following umbrella items: artifacts, culture, language, or evolution.

The phrase “human nature” is often used in casual conversation. Human nature means something very different to an anthropologist than it does to the average person. When an anthropologist says it, they are talking about something that exists across cultures – all cultures – not present in one. Human nature, therefore, is best described as innate human behavior, exhibited by persons in all human societies. For example, language and language abstraction are part of human nature. Every society has at least one language and every language offers some form of conveying the abstract. While it is certainly arguable that other animals possess language, none have the observable ability to express abstract thoughts through that language. A shortlist of human universals includes: kin relationships, status determinations, materialism, fear of strangers/outsiders, facial expressions of emotion, facial recognition, sexual jealousy, use of weapons and tools, use of humor, and on the more negative side of the scale social manipulation, selfishness, greediness, impatience, ambition, and vanity, to name a few.

Social engineers rely on these human universals. They operate on the assumption that their tactics will work across people of varying backgrounds, social classes, ages, sexes, religions, and a wide variety of other differences. Why do they take advantage of these things?

It all comes down to one thing: sex.

Sexual reproduction leads to evolutionary changes in species over time. Evolution is a succinct way of saying “genetic changes, or changes in traits, in a species over successive generations.” In order for evolution to occur, the traits that must be heritable and they must be variable. Heritability refers to the passing of traits from one generation to the next through DNA. Variability is a product of a gene and the environment. In scientific terms, a genotype is the actually makeup of genes, while the phenotype is the physical representation of those genes. For example, a person with brown eyes may actually have genes for both brown and blue eyes. If so, that person’s phenotype is brown-eyed, while his genotype is Brown-blue.

We evolve traits that lead to higher reproductive success because reproductively successful parents pass down reproductively successful traits. We are all the products of reproductively successful parents. Keep in mind sexual reproduction isn’t perfect, and sometimes anomalies such as gene mutations, extra chromosomes, missing chromosomes, etc., occur that do not result in higher reproductive success.

Contrary to the popular beliefs of the 19th Century (and of some religious groups today), genes do not blend, they shuffle. This keeps variability, and thus, sexual competition, high. Think about it like this: two parents, one with blue-eyes and blond hair and the other with brown eyes and black hair, have 3 children. If genes blended, all three children would look the same with light brown eyes and brown hair. Instead, because genes shuffle, while all three children look like siblings, they are all unique.

Woman have far fewer reproductive cells (or gametes) than males. At birth, a woman has the highest number of the eggs she will ever have. In contrast, a man’s testes produce sperm throughout his entire life. Thinking about these gametes as commodities, the reproductive value for women is high, while it is quite low for males.

According to evolutionary psychologists, women exhibit a genetic preference for mates who can provide resources (food, shelter, resistance to parasites, etc.) to themselves and their children. Ideal mates for women include those with high social status, good health, and access to valuable material possessions such as money, a home, and food. Men exhibiting these characteristics tend to have more children.

What does this have to do with SE? The sexual selection pressures place on males pushes them to compete for access to resources and more power to increase the likelihood that they will be able to reproduce. SE, like many other competitive (often criminal) activities, allows men to eliminate potential rivals by taking away from the rivals and gaining for themselves. In other words, sexual reproduction leads to male competition. Men compete for access to women and to resources. As a result, a significantly disproportionate number of males are criminals, especially violent offenders.

Genetic traits associated with aggressive behavior, SE, violence, and other criminal behavior likely evolved before the ape-hominid split approximately 5 to 8 million years ago and possibly even before the ape-monkey split 15 to 20 million years ago. While aggressive behavior is observed in males of many animal species, apes have been observed engaging in decidedly tricky behavior. Regardless of when these traits initially evolved, the human brain has changed little in the last 10,000 years. We exhibit the same basic traits our distant ancestors exhibited. We essentially have “caveman brains.”

This may leave you wondering why, if males are genetically “programmed” to be competitive, are men susceptible to SE? The answer lies in another aspect of anthropological study: culture.

Our culture makes us vulnerable to aggressive actions through a number of factors including our reliance on social bonds, our tendency to trust, aversion to loss, fear of or respect for authority, and a seemingly natural desire to be helpful, among others. Looking at that shortlist, it may be easy to dismiss some of those items as cultural. Keep in mind that culture remains one of the hardest things to define and describe accurately in the English language. From the anthropological perspective alone it can mean many things. For the purposes of this article, culture is probably best described as generically as “a way of life.” Culture can also be thought of as a method of human progression.

Humans lack the protective mechanisms that other creatures have. Humans don’t have claws, thick fur, sharp teeth, or camouflage. Our culture is our defense mechanism. While we may not run all that fast and may not be very good at climbing trees, we have the ability to create weapons. We may not have thick fur or layers of blubber to protect us from the cold weather, but we have tools that can make fire and we can fashion clothing out of animal skins. Our sense of smell is not as heightened as it is in many animals, but we can warn others through the use of spoken and written languages where our enemies are located, which berries are safe to eat, and which part of the forest has the easiest prey. For those things we cannot fashion, grow, or hunt ourselves, we have developed bartering systems. The development of advanced technology has allowed us to rise to the top of the food chain and spread our kind over the entire globe. This is all because of our culture. We have survived where other creatures cannot because of our culture.

Culture creates mechanisms for the development of trust, learning, sharing, likability, and, thus, survival. As a result, culture has guided us to create trade, economics, business, government, religion, art, and music among many other things. It should be no surprise that anyone can take advantage of the cultural mechanisms for greater influence. For example, people tend to do favors for those who are generous to them. This is the basic rule of reciprocity. Giving gifts, material or otherwise, to people without reason will most likely result in a feeling that they owe you. The gift receiver will feel external and internal pressure to reciprocate with a “gift” of equal value, such as a favor or an item of monetary or other value. Similarly, we tend to assign value to items that are of limited supply. Businesses take advantage of this all the time, socially engineering their customers to the bank. Apple, Microsoft, and other technology manufacturers limit their early supply of technology to keep demand high and maximize early profits. Retailers like Target, Amazon, and QVC are always quick to point out when they have a “Limited Supply! Act Now!” EBay has made an entire enterprise from the idea that people will pay more when they know others want the same item. As one person bids, countless others stand by trying to decide if they should bid now or hold out to the final seconds.

And back to sex. We developed culture because we had no other defense mechanism. As we gained other evolutionary advantages – walking upright, bigger brains, language, etc. – we lost our tree swinging abilities, our huge fangs, and all of our fur. And while humans are the sexiest apes, and I mean that literally – we have the some of the largest penises and breasts relative to our bodies – we are just that: sexy apes. We maintain our aggressive sex-fueled competitiveness. And while men tend to be the more cutthroat sex, we are also more easily fooled by sex. Women could be particularly good social engineers by simply being sexy. Just visit your local gentlemen’s club for evidence.

If you are interested in reading more on the subject, I highly suggest the following resources:

• http://www.aaanet.org/resources/

• http://www.anthropologie.net/

• The Evolution of Desire, David M. Buss

• The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins

• Evolution and Human Behavior (journal)

01 October 2013

Extenuating Circum Stances, Pt. 5: Cutting to the Chase

Genital cutting is deeply gendered. While the long histories of both practices revolve around ideas of perceived sexual purity, morality, and cleanliness, males across cultures are generally considered to be sexual while women are not held with esteem to their sexuality, or rather, their solo sexuality. In other words, women are considered sexual in light of their husbands. As a result, MGC is often talked about for its social benefits of reducing embarrassment, reducing instances of masturbation, increasing sexual potency and longevity, reducing the risk of sexually transmitted infections, and other sexual benefits. In only two cases, that of reducing the risk of cervical cancer in women and of women preferring the attractiveness of a circumcised penis (an argument that does not seem to have any scientific merit), do women factor into the “benefits” of MGC. Most of the perceived benefits of MGC are male-only.

On the flip side, males factor heavily into the practice of FGC. From the Western perspective, the practice is considered to be the result of a male-dominated society: FGC is social “proof” of purity for the husband; total infibulation results in a smaller vaginal opening, which increases pleasure for the male; vaginal aesthetics are improved through the removal of labia; and clitoridectomy removes the male portion of the female genitals, to name a few. With Muslim sunnat, women are not required to but may be expected to undergo the procedure to match the suffering of Mohammed and the Muslim men who undergo MGC. Additionally, sunnat is seen as a blessing that would improve a woman (Gollaher 47).

Considering only the male-female dichotomy on the surface of both practices does not allow for a complete understanding of other gender related factors. Undeniably, gender differences permeate into other spheres of influence, and these spheres, in turn, influence both MGC and FGC. Looking specifically at the public-private spheres, one can quickly discern a difference in the ways in which genital cutting practices are carried out. The public-private sphere theory asserts that, across a wide spectrum of cultures, women are confined primarily to the private, or home sphere, while men, and any associated “male” activities, exist very much in the public sphere. When women are in public, they must be pure and clean, covered up, modest, and be in the company of other women or children. In Islamic society, when a woman is no longer sexually active or able to procreate, she is allowed to mix with men in public or social settings. If a woman is seen as a sexual being in public, there is a loss of sexual purity in the matrimonial relationship. As Rodriguez states, “healthy women were not thought of as sexual beings—or rather, not sexual beings on their own, without the promptings of their husbands” (2008:332). Thus, in an effort to reduce the risk of female sexual infidelity, female sexuality, and the root of female sexuality, must be removed, or at the very least, cut. In this sense, the fear of female sexuality and an emphasis on patrilineal purity, resulting from the need for a woman to be the representation of sexual modesty and honor for her family, namely her father and brothers, may have driven the development or continuation of some practices of FGC worldwide. This same sense of purity of the patrilineal line does not exist in Western society, where smaller, nuclear families are the model.

Additionally, MGC is often compared to other common medical practices, such as tonsillectomies and wisdom tooth removal (“The Doctors” 2012; Gollaher). While this is often not how FGC is described in Western medical and social literature or media, one opinion piece written in 2001 by a male medical doctor from Nigeria living in South Carolina does contain comparisons to other forms of body cutting:

We “mutilate” the umbilical cord by cutting it off at birth and arbitrarily deciding how long the navel should be. We “mutilate” our bodies with ear rings, tongue rings, tattoos [sic], nose jobs etc... We "keep" biologically excretory products like nails and hair - and use them for beautification - and do so differently, I might add, depending on the cultural environment. Some western women (in the US) begin to shave their leg hair at age 10. Has anyone else in the world attacked them for mutilating what God put there for a reason? We use traditional marks for medicinal and symbolic purposes.... Why is that not 'mutilation' of the skin? Why not ban it? (Omoigui 2001)

Comparing the cutting of an umbilical cord, which does not contain nerve endings, and which dies upon detaching from the mother’s body, to the removal of a body part containing more nerve endings than the fingertips is hardly copasetic. Comparing either MGC or FGC to any other non-medical surgery, cutting, or piercing practice which is done with the consent of the individual also leads to problems. Consent is an important part of the social and cultural idea of personal freedom. Opponents of genital cutting, particularly FGC, take issue with the lack of personal freedom in the decision to undergo the surgery.

In some cultures, it may be customary for younger children to get tattoos, have their teeth chiseled, or get piercings in their ears, lips, noses, genitals, etc. In the West, these practices are not common in children; while ear piercings are common among youth, stretching of piercings, piercings in other parts of the body, and tattoos require individuals to be of a certain age before they can be performed legally. Opponents of genital cutting would likely oppose other forms of skin cutting, piercing, or tattooing, in cases where children or women are forced, either physically or socially, to perform the body changing activities.

Comparison of either practice to surgeries that are deemed necessary for medical reasons presents additional problems. Neither tonsillectomy nor wisdom tooth extraction are quite as prevalent in the U.S. as MGC. Furthermore, tonsillectomy may be a preventative surgery in many cases, but it is also performed in response to tonsillitis. Even as a preventative surgery, the medical history of the patient and the patient’s family is weighed against current medical research on the risks of tonsillitis and options are discussed with the individual. In other words, the patient consents to a practice upon gaining information; tonsillectomies, for example, are not performed routinely on infants, nor are surgeries for actual birth defects that may or may not cause complications later in life, such as heart murmurs.

While proponents of male circumcision in the West tend to deny similarities between MGC and FGC, opponents of both practices often draw connections between the two and argue that "the cultural explanations and justifications for male and female surgeries are similar" (Bell 2007). As was discussed earlier, masturbation, sexuality purity, and personal and moral hygiene factor into both processes. In both cases, the cutting occurs primarily on children and infants, who do not have the capacity to give consent, even if they are old enough to communicate. Social pressures, including teasing and embarrassment, may also increase the likelihood that parents or children will feel obligated to have the practice performed.

Interestingly, there are differences between FGC and MGC having to do with informed consent. Western views place more emphasis on lack of consent with regard to FGC, stating that girls are forced to go through with the violent practice without being fully informed of the options or risks. Perhaps because, at least in Africa, FGC is generally carried out on girls who are no longer infants, some even in their pre-teens or teen years, the idea that long-term psychological and health problems arise from FGC that are not seen in MGC. Some forms of FGC are conducted on infants and may be less intrusive. There is often no distinction made. MGC, on the other hand, is often discussed with regard to the rights of the parents and not the rights of the infant, with the major exception being from the perspective of intactivists. It stands to reason that, considering the majority of arguments for both MGC and anti-abortion legislation come from religious groups, many of the same people who fight for the right to life of a fetus over the rights of a mother’s choice draw a line at birth and argue for the rights of the parents over the rights of the infant with regard to the infant’s genitals.[1]

Male and female genital tissue has different significance based on cultural perspectives as well. Modern Western medicine’s view of the foreskin for most of the 20th Century has held that it is a relatively worthless leftover from man’s early days. As a result, after being removed from a penis, the foreskin is tossed away. At least, that is until recently when foreskin tissue has been used by cancer and other disease researchers for a variety of practices, including testing, growing cells, and more (Gollaher 65; 165). “Ritual [MGC], in contrast, in Madagascar and many other places, holds the foreskin in talismanic esteem,” – indeed, women across many cultures exhibit unique practices regarding the use of the forskin upon removal, including storing the foreskin in jars, burying the foreskin in sand, and even swallowing them to promote fertility (Gollaher 65-66). I could uncover no information on the uses of labial, sheath, or clitoral tissue upon removal from the female; should it be discovered that the tissue be used for ritual or scientific purpose, Western opponents of the practices would react with an intensity anew.

Perhaps the least talked about example of gender division in genital cutting is the way in which the West deals with humor surrounding the practice. FGC is talked about with grave solemnity sans any humoristic tone. MGC, on the other hand, is the source is several jokes and can be discussed in social settings through the use of humor. In a 2012 episode of medical talk show The Doctors, a Pediatrician joked, “Well, you couldn’t walk for a year!” after a Plastic Surgeon jokingly stated, “I’m sure it hurt, but I don’t remember” (“The Doctors” 2012). Additionally, jokes involving over-circumcision, foreskins, and penises in general are in no short supply. A common example of such a joke is one I have heard repeated from several individuals in various forms throughout my life: “I was circumcised and they threw the wrong part away.” Indeed, humor surrounds a number of unfortunate MGC acts, including the now infamous Lorena and John Bobbitt penile castration story. If jokes exist regarding FGC, they are not known to me or Google. This is not to say that factors that play into or influence FGC, including cultural and religious traditions, male dominance, and misogyny, do not get ridiculed or become the focus for jokes. Certainly, there is no shortage of misogynistic jests and the content of such jokes may even reference female genitalia. However, the physical act of FGC, in any form, is not common in humor, at least in the West.

Lastly, one view, that of psychotherapist Bruno Bettelheim, stands out as relatively unique amongst most other. Bettelheim puts a large emphasis on the female influence of MGC, claiming that “circumcision developed as a result both of man’s desire to participate in the female power of procreation, and of woman’s desire, if not to rob the male of the penis, at least to make him bleed from his genital as women do” (Gollaher 69). Of course, this view present problems in application: MGC, generally speaking, does not have any effect on procreation and certainly does not allow a male to become pregnant or give birth; MGC typically does not result in extended periods of bleeding, and in no documented cases has it led to bleeding on a monthly cycle for the majority of a male’s adult life. Conversely, FGC can lead to complications in childbirth or in sexual intercourse prior to pregnancy. If it is true, at least on a social level, that MGC allows men to “procreate” in the sense that they produce more men through the act, then certainly the same argument could be made for women and FGC, as FGC is a marker for the passage into womanhood for some cultures. This, consequently, removes the uniqueness of MGC for procreation, for if MGC is truly to mimic female genitals, we would expect to see only MGC practiced. Yet, both practices are observed occurring in the same cultural groups many times over. Furthermore, if MGC represented a deep-seated need for men to bleed from the genitals as women do, we would also expect to see universal application. This, however, is not the case. Additionally, this notion does not account for notions of duality, as is found in various cultures in Africa, such as the Dogon, the Bambara, and the Lobi of Mali. In these groups, the prepuce is considered to be the female portion of the penis, just as the labia and clitoris might be considered male.

As a result of the long history of MGC in the West, combined with the cultural, social, and other factors that have influenced opinions on MGC, attitudes differ strongly in terms of MGC and FGC. It is difficult for many to see a connection between the two, with even those who are educated in medical science refusing to allow comparisons across gender lines. As Bell put it so succinctly, “all forms of female genital cutting are seen to constitute a sexual mutilation and violation of bodily integrity, and male genital operations are dismissed as benign” (Bell 131). Opinions are subjective, based upon the religious views on MGC one was taught since birth, social factors that include the circumcision status of the parents, and ideas or assumptions about male and female sexuality. For some, if a man can get an erection, there is no harm done (Bell 127). No consideration is made for risk, scarring, sexual dysfunction later in life, or personal preference of the individual whose genitals were cut. Conversely, FGC is only considered in light of its negative consequences, with little or no consideration for the social and cultural benefits. In other words, there is a tendency to downplay the risks associated with MGC while exaggerating those associated with FGC, and at the same time emphasizing benefits to MGC that may not actually exist. When broken down, the two practices can be reduced to only two primary differences: legal status in the West; and the likelihood for severe damage is somewhat higher for FGC. Until both practices can be seen wholly in light of their gendered statuses, regardless of the other factors that affect acceptance or disapproval of either, there will continue to exist a colossal chasm of gender which impedes thoughtful analysis by the public at large.

[1] Note that this is mere speculation based on arguments in popular news media in the absence of legitimate research into pro-MGC groups, their relationships to Right to Life groups, and their religious affiliations.


Scholarly Books and Articles

Bell, Kirsten. “Genital Cutting and Western Discourses on Sexuality.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol. 19, Issues 2, pp. 125-148.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Trends in In-Hospital Newborn Male Circumcision, United States, 1999-2010.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Last updated 2 Sep. 2012. Visited 4 May 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6034a4.htm?s_cid=mm6034a4_w

Gollaher, David L. Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery. Basic Books: New York, 2000.

Sarah W. Rodriguez “Rethinking the History of Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy: American Medicine and Female Sexuality in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 63, Number 3, July 2008, pp. 323-347

Shoen, Edgar. “Circumcision Updated-Implicated?” Pediatrics 92 (1993), pp. 388-391.

World Health Organization. “Female Genital Mutilation.” WHO Fact Sheets. Last updated Feb. 2013. Visited 6 Apr. 2013. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/index.html

World Health Organization. Female Genital Mutilation: A Joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA Statement. Geneva: WHO, 1997.

Sources from Popular Media

American Academy of Pediatricians. Where We Stand: Circumcision. Last updated 28 Jan. 2013. Visited 12 Apr. 2013. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/prenatal/decisions-to-make/pages/Where-We-Stand-Circumcision.aspx

Brady, Brittany. “Babies’ herpes linked to circumcision practice.” CNN Health. Last updated 8 Apr. 2013. Visited 6 May 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/07/health/new-york-neonatal-herpes

Connolly, Kate. “Circumcision ruling condemned by Germany’s Muslim and Jewish Leaders.” The Guardian. Published 27 Jun. 2012. Visited 6 Apr. 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/27/circumcision-ruling-germany-muslim-jewish

D’Arcy, Janice. “’Intactivists’ furious at new AAP circumcision policy.” Washington Post. Published 30 Aug. 2012. Visited 9 May 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-parenting/post/intactivists-furious-at-new-aap-circumcision-policy/2012/08/29/67ccd6d0-f235-11e1-adc6-87dfa8eff430_blog.html

Goldman, A.J., Donald Snyder, and Nathan Jeffay. “Circumcision Controversy Endangers Fight To Keep Rite Legal in Germany.” The Jewish Daily Forward. Published 6 May 2013. Visited 9 May 2013. http://forward.com/articles/175915/circumcision-controversy-endangers-fight-to-keep-r/

Halperin, Mordechai. “Metzitzah B’peh Controversy: The View from Israel.” Jewish Action Online. Last updated 6 Mar. 2012. Visited 9 May 2013. http://web.archive.org/web/20120306221308/http://www.ou.org/jewish_action/article/8987

The Huffington Post. “Circumcision Controversy Brings Yona Metzger, Israel Chief Rabbi, to Germany.” Published 21 Aug. 2012. Visited 9 May 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/21/israel-chief-rabbi-in-ger_0_n_1816735.html

Omoigui, Nowa. “OPINION.” Vanguard Daily (Lagos). Visited 12 Apr. 2013. Available at http://www.circumstitions.com/FGM-defended.html

Rosenblum, Emma. “Jewish But Don’t Want to Circumcise?” New York Magazine. Published 18 Oct. 2009. Visited 10 May 2013. http://nymag.com/health/features/60149/

Schwartzman, Richard. “The Emotional Consequences of Circumcision.” Beyond the Bris: Questioning Jewish Circumcision. Published 20 Feb. 2013. Visited 9 May 2013. http://www.beyondthebris.com/2013/02/the-emotional-consequences-of.html 

17 September 2013

Implementation and Audit Concerns with Langner’s RIPE Framework

“There is nothing novel here and, to be honest, [Langner] includes many statements that
I think are inaccurate or that I'd like to see him support with evidence,” an anonymous source states in response to Ralph Langner’s proposed ICS/SCADA security framework which he calls the Robust ICS Planning and Evaluation framework, or RIPE. Langner believes RIPE to be a better approach to ICS security than NIST’s current draft Cyber Security Framework (PDF).

My source, who chooses to remain anonymous, disagrees. And she has the experience to back it up with 30 years of Government auditing, performance measurement, and total quality management (TQM) the last five spent overseeing IT and ICS audits. Additionally, she is a former colleague of mine and I can personally vouch for her attention to detail and her longevity in audit work.

I’d like to see credible, verifiable support for his claim that the objective of corporate risk management is to minimize cost, not risk.” That objective, she states, is a huge assumption on Langner’s part. If, in fact, the objective of risk management is to minimize cost, why is it not dubbed cost management?

Furthermore, the "quality" performance measures listed in RIPE are not all quality, or effectiveness, measures. “Just because you call an input, output, or efficiency performance measure a ‘quality measure’ doesn't make it so. That is a mistake that is unforgivable because of Langner’s heavy emphasis on evaluation,” she explains. In essence, for a measure to be a quality measure, it must be part of a standardized set of technical specifications that define how to calculate quality. Quality, in terms of ICS, is a fuzzy concept. For purposes of ICS security, quality measures must come back to the basics: confidentiality, integrity, authorization, and, most importantly, availability.

It is no big secret in the ICS community, and the larger IT community, that components manufacturers almost completely forego security. In many cases, software developers follow suit, expecting that customers will have installed third-party or standalone security solutions. The Department of Homeland Security and the ICS-CERT make this point clear in their various training programs. While it may be true that security-heavy procurement specs could force manufacturers to pay closer attention to component security, it could also heavily increase the cost of the products themselves, going against Langner’s own view of risk management as cost minimization. Additionally, the lead time on component development might see a significant lengthening should manufacturers properly implement security planning, integration, and testing processes.

Langner’s comparison of his framework to Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) compliance is also troublesome. As most security professionals will note, compliance rarely equals security. If anything, compliance is simply a low set watermark. Perhaps more troubling, however, is the cost associated with ensuring SOX (and other) compliance standards. Again, if Langner is so interested in reducing costs for plant operators, why push for an expensive compliance process with questionable effectiveness at best? It would appear, instead, that RIPE, like SOX compliance, is actually an expensive process-driven solution that fails to focus on risk.

Her biggest grievance, however, is Langner’s claim that “If security characteristics of a specific plant are documented properly and accurately… third party experts can assess the security posture of a given plant without actually going there.” From an audit perspective, failure to verify controls is an unforgiveable error. In no instance should a security assessor perform a risk assessment on paper only. The bottom line for any assessment is to trust but verify. Remote assessments fail to implement the vital second half of that rule.

Her comments regarding his framework are not all negative. In her and my own training efforts, we both stress some of the same points Langner stresses, especially knowledge of the control environment, up-to-date asset inventories, and continuous monitoring. Indeed, the 8 domains that Langner identifies, including accurate and up-to-date inventories and topologies, established policies, and security training for staff, are old hat. Each of the controls in RIPE can be tied to an equivalent control in the SANS 20 Critical Security Controls.

“I like the voice he used in the piece; it’s almost sarcastic. And I really like his term ‘cyber ecosystem,’” she says. She also notes her appreciation for his recognition of the air gap myth. While it is not a new idea, having been discussed by Eric Byres, Ăˆireann Leverett, and Billy Rios, the air gap myth has not fully been accepted by the ICS community at large.

In the end, the RIPE measures are not a well-balanced family of measures, a shortcoming that my source, as an auditor, and I, as a security professional, cannot forgive. If it is true that the measures are unbalanced or misleading, then Langner’s notions of meaningful benchmarking might be jeopardized. That is, if benchmarking were even to occur, which is questionable based on the sensitive, guarded nature of ICS vulnerabilities.