Would encryption have changed the election?

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election is over and settled, so the question I’m posing is basically a thought experiment at this point, but it’s worth pondering: Would the judicious use of modern encryption have changed the outcome of last month’s U.S. Presidential election?

To be clear, I’m not talking about the e-mail server scandal that involved Hillary Clinton at the State Department. To borrow the language of the infamous Wells Report, it’s “more probable than not” that the former secretary of state violated the law — and she certainly violated any reasonable judgment — by using a private e-mail server located in her home to pass classified information. However, it’s unlikely encryption would have played much of a part in the outcome of the election. As a result of the subsequent FBI investigation, the public ended up seeing the contents of many of the e-mails, and for the most part we found them mundane. The scandal was the blatant disregard for procedure when handling classified information, not the information handled.

Rather, what I’m talking about here is the e-mail leak from the Gmail account of John Podesta, the Washington power broker and Clinton campaign chairman. His abundance of correspondence with much of Clinton’s inner circle laid bare their collective disdain for most Americans. Not everyone, mind you. Just blacks, whites, Hispanics, Catholics, and Muslims, to name a few subsets of the population. Unlike the private e-mail server, the contents of these e-mails were incredibly revealing, particularly to the extent of the groupthink within the Clinton organization and the Democratic party in general. I would argue they were far more damaging to the Clinton campaign, which is why I posed the question above.

In spite of the laughable claims that the Podesta leak was a sophisticated “hack” by a foreign government, the evidence suggests Podesta gave his password to the attackers himself while falling prey to a rather common phishing attack. Like a Craigslist cashier’s check scam, you’d find it hard to believe anyone would be dumb enough to fall for it — except you know someone who has or you have yourself. In short, the leak was a self-inflicted wound.

John Podesta: I should have used Signal

Now, if Podesta had used a simple smartphone app like Signal, his correspondence would have been encrypted from end to end, leaving nothing in the cloud to be found. The encryption keys are kept on the phones and change regularly, so that even if an adversary managed to intercept the messages between two devices and crack an encryption key, the key would only unlock a handful of messages. To get all his messages, someone would have had to hack or gain physical access to his phone or the phones of his correspondents — not impossible, of course, but apparently not as easy as convincing an important Beltway insider to give you his personal e-mail password. In fact, months before the Podesta leak went public, the Democratic National Committee had told its staffers to use Signal for all its confidential correspondence, although the advisory may have come too late to do any good for Podesta or the DNC.

Personally, I’ve been urging my friends and family and readers to use encryption for years and to make it a part of their daily routine. I have developed a soft spot for Signal over the past couple years, but nowadays the encryption in WhatsApp is based on the same protocol; I use it with some of my correspondents who are reluctant to install another messaging app. That said, I still prefer Signal for its privacy policy; I don’t completely trust Facebook’s ownership of WhatsApp’s metadata.

Update: If you’re a WhatsApp user, be sure to read Dan’s comment at 17:01 below.

Sushi in Las Vegas

Here in Las Vegas, Kathryn and I are staying with a grad-school buddy of mine who’s in town for an academic conference. The three of us went out for sushi last night at a Japanese restaurant called Sushi Takashi, located in Chinatown.

(Some people are surprised to learn Las Vegas has a Chinatown. It does, and it’s not insignificant.)

I’m not a big fan of sushi, but my wife is, and you can only say no to your spouse so many times before, in the interest of marital harmony, you relent and say yes. Since my buddy also likes sushi, now seemed an appropriate time.

Las Vegas has countless cheap all-you-can-eat sushi places, but the three of us agreed we wanted quality, not quantity. That said, the place we chose did have an attractively priced two-signature-roll combo special with several accompanying courses. All three of us ordered the combo, all with different signature rolls.

We all enjoyed the ambiance, the service, and the food, my buddy even going so far as to say it was some of the best sushi he’s ever had. For me, the problem was I reached my raw fish limit at the end of the first roll. When the second roll arrived, I had one bite and threw in the towel. Not a problem — between the two other diners at the table, the second roll didn’t go to waste.

I’d eat there again, but next time I think I’d order à la carte. Just one signature roll or possibly two smaller rolls would have been a year’s worth of sushi for me.

Fact check?

It’s election season, and I’ve recently been noticing an uptick in the number of mainstream media stories purporting to fact-check candidates’ statements from debates, rallies, advertisements, and so on.

Do you ever wonder who’s fact-checking the fact-checkers?

One of those fact-checkers is Bloomberg, whose website is where I yesterday stumbled across a story about populist parties in Europe. It caught my attention because it made an assertion I was fairly certain wasn’t true.

The first round of presidential voting will pit the primary winners against Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front, and candidates from smaller parties. Polls show Ms Le Pen would win as much as 30 percent of the vote in April, enough to advance to a second round. But surveys show she’d lose a runoff to any mainstream candidate. In parliamentary elections in June, the party that wins the presidency is likely to gain enough seats to form a government. Despite Ms Le Pen’s popularity, the National Front holds no seats in the 577-member National Assembly and failed to gain control of any regional governments in elections last year.

The last sentence is the problem. It’s well known — even by a few of us here in the U.S. — that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, niece of the same Marine Le Pen mentioned in the article, is a member of the France’s National Front party and is also a member of the National Assembly, representing a constituency in the Vaucluse department in the southeastern part of France. Even Sarah Palin knows who she is! So the assertion that “the National Front holds no seats in the 577-member National Assembly” is, at best, misleading.

It’s true the National Front doesn’t have enough members to form a caucus in the National Assembly. However, if two Green Party members were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and decided to caucus with the Democrats, would Bloomberg report the Green Party has no members in Congress?

I somewhat doubt it.

Oddly, the same Bloomberg website referred to Marion Maréchal-Le Pen as “a National Front lawmaker” as recently as a few months ago. How does Bloomberg suppose she makes laws without belonging to France’s main lawmaking body?

Perhaps they thought she had a pen and a phone.

For what it’s worth, I e-mailed Bloomberg’s news desk yesterday to alert them to the inaccuracy, but as of today I still haven’t heard back from them, and they still haven’t corrected or clarified the story. As far as I can tell at this point, they’re not interested in doing so.

So why did I single out this story?

First, I suspect the story was misleading by design. If Bloomberg can convince you populist candidates have little traction in Europe, perhaps they can convince you they have no future in the U.S. Flatly stating a party has no members in a national lawmaking body has far more impact than acknowledging it has two. In this case, the facts get in the way of maintaining the narrative.

To be perfectly honest, though, my main interest in this story is of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen herself. As politicians go, she’s rather easy on the eyes. It’s a shame Bloomberg slighted her.

Pizzeria Don Camillo, Montpellier

I once had a favorite pizza place in Montpellier, but it closed years ago. I also had a second favorite pizzeria, but it closed too. I didn’t have a third favorite, so I had to start all over again. Now, Kathryn and I have been to Don Camillo three times in the last two years, which means by default it’s my new favorite pizzeria in Montpellier. In fact, it was where we had the first dinner and, roughly two weeks later, the last dinner of our recent stay in Montpellier. Excellent wood-fired pizza, decent table wine, great ambiance, friendly service, and reasonable prices — what’s not to like? The fact that it was just a few steps from our apartment didn’t hurt either.

Pizzeria Don Camillo, Montpellier

Being Americans, we tend to arrive a tad early for dinner — 7:30 being early for dinner in the south of France, especially on a Saturday. But by the time I took this photo closer to 9:20, the restaurant was full of smiling faces, including a few families. In a university city like Montpellier where it’s easy to feel outnumbered by twenty-something-year-old students, seeing some silver hair among the other diners at Don Camillo made us feel like we were in an age-appropriate environment for a couple hours.

T.K. Maxx?

We recently spotted a T.K. Maxx storefront on a main shopping street in Trier, Germany.

T.K. Maxx, Trier, Germany

To those of us familiar with T.J. Maxx, it seemed like this was some sort of knockoff. However, according to Wikipedia, T.K. Maxx is affiliated with the T.J. Maxx brand in the United States. The name was changed in Europe to avoid confusion with a local retailer having T.J. in its name.