David Pratten is passionate about leading IT-related change projects for social good.
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Can Afghanistan’s underground “sneakernet” survive the Taliban?

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When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August, Mohammad Yasin had to make some difficult decisions very quickly. As the country reeled from the shock of the insurgent takeover, the 21-year-old—whose name has been changed to protect his safety—snuck into his small place of business and got to work. 

He began erasing some of the sensitive data on his computer and moving the rest onto two of his largest hard drives, which he then wrapped in a layer of plastic and buried underground at an undisclosed location.

Yasin didn’t take these precautions because he is part of Afghan intelligence, or linked to the government. He has no state secrets hidden on his computers. He is what is locally referred to as a “computer kar”: someone who sells digital content by hand in a country where a steady internet connection can be hard to come by. “I sell pretty much everything, from movies, music, mobile applications, to iOS updates. I also help create Apple IDs and social media accounts, and with backing up phones and recovering data,” he says, then adds, in a hushed voice, “I can also unlock [stolen] phones and provide other naughty videos.” 

When the Taliban captured the city of Herat on August 12, Yasin and his colleagues speculated that it wouldn’t be long before the Taliban’s invading forces took over their own city of Mazar-i-Sharif. 

“Things were more tense in Mazar, too, so me and other computer kars of Mazar who work together held a secret meeting to decide what to do to protect all our content,” he says. Among them, the informal union of computer kars had several hundred terabytes of data collected over several years, and much of it would be considered controversial—even criminal—by the Taliban. 

“We all agreed to not delete, but rather hide the more nefarious content,” he says. “We reasoned that in Afghanistan, these regimes come and go frequently, but our business should not be disrupted.” 

He isn’t too worried about being discovered.

“People are hiding guns, money, jewelry, and whatnot, so I am not scared of hiding my hard drives. They will never be able to find [them],” he says. “I am a 21st-century boy, and most Taliban are living in the past.”

Less than 20 years after former president Hamid Karzai made Afghanistan’s first mobile phone call, there are nearly 23 million mobile phone users in a country of fewer than 39 million people. But internet access is a different matter: by early 2021, there were fewer than 9 million internet users, a lag that has been largely attributed to widespread physical security problems, high costs, and a lack of infrastructural development across the country’s mountainous terrain. 

That’s why computer kars like Yasin can now be found all across Afghanistan. Although they sometimes download their information from the internet when they’re able to get a connection, they physically transport much of it on hard drives from neighboring countries—what is known as the “sneakernet.”

“I use the Wi-Fi at home to download some of the music and applications; I also have five SIM cards for internet,” says Mohibullah, another kar who asked not to be identified by his real name. “But the connection here is not reliable, so every month I send a 4 terabyte hard drive to Jalalabad, and they fill it with content and return it in a week’s time with the latest Indian movies or Turkish TV dramas, music, and applications,” for which he says he pays between 800 and 1,000 afghanis ($8.75 to $11).

“People are hiding guns, money, jewelry, and whatnot, so I am not scared of hiding my hard drives. I am a 21st-century boy, and most Taliban are living in the past.”

Mohammad Yasin, computer kar

Mohibullah says he can install more than 5 gigabytes of data on a phone—including movies, songs, music videos, and even course lessons—for just 100 afghanis, or $1.09. “I have the latest Hollywood and Bollywood movies dubbed in Dari and Pashto [Afghan national languages], music from across the globe, games, applications,” he told me in early August, days before the Taliban took over. 

For just a little more, Mohibullah helps customers create social media accounts, sets up their phones and laptops, and even writes emails for them. “I sell everything—A to Z of contents. Everything except ‘100% films,’” he said, referring to pornography. (Later he admitted that he did have some “free videos,” another nickname for porn, but that he only sells them to trusted customers.)

Most of his customers are men, but women also regularly buy music and movies from him. Much of it comes from Pakistan, which he says has better and cheaper internet connectivity.

As we were discussing the business in Mohibullah’s small store on a crowded street in west Kabul, two women walked in. They declined an interview request, but told us they were “wedding DJs” looking for latest music to play at their clients’ lavish wedding parties. Mohibullah offered them a selection of latest Indian music to browse through, and he transferred each of them a playlist of over 100 songs for 70 afghanis.

Unfortunately for the kars, such clients have entirely disappeared since the rise of the Taliban. The violent, extremist regime has banned music and restricted women’s freedoms.

Yasin and Mohibullah have had to adapt their business quickly to the new regime. They replaced the raunchy Bollywood and Iranian music videos with the Taliban taranas (songs without music) and recitations from the Quran. Afghans love to carry pictures of celebrities on their phones; those have now been replaced with pictures of Taliban flags in different styles. And all the “free movies” kars offer are now hidden; only they know where. 

“If they ever find those, I will be punished very badly. They will execute me,” says Yasin, shuddering.

Content crackdowns

The Taliban takeover has been bad for business, they both admit. Their average earnings have fallen nearly 90%, from around 3,000 afghanis per day to less than 350—from $32 to $3.80. 

“From that, at least 100 afghanis goes for generator fuel and about 50 afghanis to the municipality for the space I use on the street,” says Yasin. “That isn’t enough to support my five siblings and [my] parents.”

In addition to policing their content, the Taliban have also been cracking down on kars like Yasin who have expanded their services to help Afghans fleeing persecution. 

“Those who are in hiding or who are waiting to be evacuated come to me to help them back up their phone data on flash drives, to avoid being caught by the Taliban fighters who are checking phones at the checkpoints,” he says. 

Sometimes he charges a nominal fee, he says, but he has also waived it in some cases. 

“It is usually personal data they want to take with them that the Taliban may not approve, and sometimes it’s information that can identify them as supporters of the previous government or foreign allies, that can get them arrested or even executed,” he says.

Mohibullah finds it ironic that the Taliban are cracking down on the content dealers now that they are in power, because they used the sneakernet themselves for radicalization and recruitment. 

“Every once in a while, some men would approach us to distribute the Taliban taranas praising their fighters, or graphic videos of the executions they’ve conducted,” he says. “They wanted to use our services to spread their ideology and propaganda among the youth.” 

He never shared such content with his clients before now, he says. 

“These days, however, the Taliban are among us, and they demand such content. They also ask for pictures of Taliban flags and fighters with their weapons. I oblige because I have to feed my family,” he says.

But the Afghan computer kars are nothing if not enterprising. Many of them continue to discreetly sell forbidden content. Others, searching for a silver lining, are hopeful that there may even be an uptick in business for certain entertainment content as many Afghans, particularly women, are forced to stay indoors. 

“During covid lockdowns there was an increase in demand for cartoon clips because children were locked at home,” says Mohibullah. “Now, with the Taliban and widespread unemployment, people are also stuck at home; they might watch more movies.”

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Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition – Class 8 – Cyber

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This article first appeared in West Point’s Modern War Institute.

We just completed the eighth week of our new national security class at Stanford – Technology, Innovation and Great Power CompetitionJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed the class to cover how technology will shape the character and employment of all instruments of national power.

In class 1, we learned that national power is the sum of all the resources available to a state to pursue its national objectives and interests. This power is wielded through a combination of a country’s diplomacy, information, its military capabilities, economic strength, finance, intelligence, and law enforcement. These instruments of national power employed in a “whole of government approach” to advance a state’s interests are known by the acronym DIME-FIL.

Class 2 focused on China, the U.S.’s primary great power competitor. China is using all elements of its national power, e.g. information/ intelligence, its military might and economic strength as well as exploiting Western finance and technology. China’s goal is to challenge and overturn the U.S.-led liberal international order and replace it with its own neo-totalitarian model where China emerges as the dominant regional and global power.

The third class focused on Russia, which since 2014 has asserted itself as a competing great power. We learned how Russia pursues security and economic interests in parallel with its ideological aims.

The fourth class shifted our focus to the impact commercial technologies have on the instruments of national power (DIME-FIL). The first technology we examined was semiconductors, and the U.S. dependence on TSMC in Taiwan, for its most advanced logic chips. This is problematic as China claims Taiwan is a province of China.

In the fifth class we examined the impact that AI and Machine Learning will continue to have on the capabilities and employment of DIME-FIL. We heard from the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), the focal point of the DOD AI strategy; and from the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) – a DoD organization that contracts with commercial companies to solve national security problems.

In class six we discussed unmanned systems and autonomy and how the advent of these weapons will change operational concepts and the face of war.

Class seven looked at the Second Space Age, how our military and civilian economy rely on assets in space, and how space is now a contested environment, with China and Russia capable of disabling/destroying our satellites

Today’s class: Cyber

Catch up with the class by reading our intro to the class, and summaries of Classes 123, 4, 5 6 and 7


Required readings

Case Study for Class

Competition in Cyber Space

Cyber Attacks / Cyber Warfare

IP & Protected Personal Information Theft

Political Interference

Reading Assignment Questions

Pick one of the below questions and answer in approximately 100 words, based on the required readings. Please note that this assignment will be graded and count towards course participation. 

  1. What is the U.S. Cyber Command’s doctrinal approach to competing in the cyber domain? Do you agree with the current doctrine? Why or why not? Would you do anything differently?
  2. Of the different types of cyber threats presented in this week’s readings (cyberattacks, PPI and IP theft, and political interference), which do you think presents the greatest threat to U.S. interests and why? What should the U.S do to address that threat? Be specific if your recommendations are for the government or private sector.

Class 8 – Guest Speaker

Dr. Michael Sulmeyer is a Senior Adviser, USCYBERCOM (Cyber Command). He was the former Senior Director for Cyber at the National Security Council. The former Cyber Project Director at the Harvard Kennedy School-Belfer Center. He was a past Director, Plans and Operations, for Cyber Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Previously, he worked on arms control and the maintenance of strategic stability between the United States, Russia, and China.

Cyber Command formed in 2010 and is one of the eleven unified combatant commands of the United States Department of Defense. It’s commanded by a four-star general, General Paul Nakasone who is also the director of the National Security Agency and chief of the Central Security Service. It has three main missions: (1) defending the DoD information systems, (2) supporting joint force commanders with cyberspace operations, and (3) defending the nation from significant cyberattacks.

Dr. Sulmeyer has written, “A focus on cyber-deterrence is understandable but misplaced. Deterrence aims to change the calculations of adversaries by persuading them that the risks of an attack outweigh the rewards or that they will be denied the benefits they seek. But in seeking merely to deter enemies, the United States finds itself constantly on the back foot. Instead, the United States should be pursuing a more active cyberpolicy, one aimed not at deterring enemies but at disrupting their capabilities. In cyberwarfare, Washington should recognize that the best defense is a good offense.

In countries where technology companies are willing to cooperate with the U.S. government (or with requests from their own government), a phone call to the right cloud provider or Internet service provider (ISP) could result in getting bad actors kicked off the Internet.

U.S. hackers could pursue a campaign of erasing computers at scale, disabling accounts and credentials used by hackers to attack, and cutting off access to services so it is harder to compromise innocent systems to conduct their attacks.”

Our national defense cyber policy has now moved to “persistent engagement.” Defending forward as close as possible to the origin of adversary activity extends our reach to expose adversaries’ weaknesses, learn their intentions and capabilities, and counter attacks close to their origins. Continuous engagement imposes tactical friction and strategic costs on our adversaries, compelling them to shift resources to defense and reduce attacks. We will pursue attackers across networks and systems to render most malicious cyber and cyber-enabled activity inconsequential while achieving greater freedom of maneuver to counter and contest dangerous adversary activity before it impairs our national power.

Lecture 8

If you can’t see the lecture 8 slides click here.

Lessons Learned

  • Cyber Command’s role is to:
    • defend the DoD information systems
    • support joint force commanders with cyberspace operations, and
    • defend the nation from significant cyberattacks
  • Cyber Command has evolved from a reactive, defensive posture to a proactive posture called “persistent engagement”

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1 day ago
Sydney, Australia
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Researchers Defeat Randomness to Create Ideal Code

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Suppose you are trying to transmit a message. Convert each character into bits, and each bit into a signal. Then send it, over copper or fiber or air. Try as you might to be as careful as possible, what is received on the other side will not be the same as what you began with. Noise never fails to corrupt. In the 1940s, computer scientists first confronted the unavoidable problem of noise.


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2 days ago
Sydney, Australia
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Lodging a Complaint

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Among the most compelling anecdotes suggesting that dolphins have concepts of ‘wrong’ behavior is Thomas White’s description of how a human snorkeler observing Atlantic spotted dolphins off the Bahamas went outside the bounds of the norms of behavior expected by the dolphins of human observers at that site. The swimmer approached a calf engaged in learning to fish with its mother, a no-no in the rules of engagement between swimmers and these dolphins built up over years. When this happened, the mother then swam not to the hapless trespasser but to the leader of the group of swimmers, whom she could identify, and tail-slapped, her displeasure apparently directed at the leader who had not controlled the behavior of those being led.

— Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, 2015

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3 days ago
Sydney, Australia
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Fibery vs. Monday. Complex vs. simple processes.

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Usually posts X vs. Y are shallow. This post is not. As the Fibery CEO, I have to switch off the bias. Take this post with a grain of salt…
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4 days ago
Sydney, Australia
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From Project to Product to Problem-Solving: Driving Transparency

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This post is an excerpt of the From Project to Product to Problem Solving guidance paper by Ross Clanton, Amy Walters, David Silverman, Heather Mickman, Lucas Rettig, Pat Birkeland, Paula Thrasher, Rosalind Radcliffe, and Jeffrey Snover.

As businesses become increasingly digital and product driven, companies are pivoting to product-centric operating models. The backbone of such models is a network of teams aligned to a set of value streams and empowered to set their own objectives and paths to achieving them. Unlike project-driven companies, which are driven by temporary endeavors with predefined scopes, product-centric companies organize people and goals around products that continuously deliver value to customers.

While much more agile than their project-based predecessors, product-based organizations face two common execution challenges. First, maintaining continuous alignment among multiple autonomous product teams is a daunting task. Leaders’ perspectives on what is important is likely to vary based on the products they lead. To their teams, it can be very frustrating when a corporate-level initiative disrupts their local prioritization processes, causing them to pull focus from what is most important for the product to what is most important for the business.

Second, even with the most thoughtfully designed value streams, some dependencies between products typically remain. When dependencies cannot be decoupled, product teams must negotiate whose roadmap will be compromised, which is a challenging exercise in the absence of a larger, global prioritization framework.

How Do We Solve This Problem?

These challenges of initiatives that supersede product teams or require execution across product teams are not insurmountable, but addressing these challenges does require deliberate executive action. First and foremost, organizations must create a common operating picture across their team-of-teams. This operating model can take the form of mapping value streams and mapping a product taxonomy across the enterprise. The strategic priorities of the business should be well understood across product lines, empowering local product leaders to make decisions about their products that are consistent with the goals of the business.

Additionally, businesses must leverage a transparent prioritization process that leaders can anchor to when making prioritization decisions for their own products and while navigating dependencies. Finally, it is important to reduce dependencies across products to the greatest extent possible, but also to have a process in place for negotiating them when they do arise. 

Driving Transparency & Creating a Common Operating Picture

As said in the opening pages of Making Work Visible by Dominica DeGrandis, “It should come as no surprise that we can better manage what we can see. When we can’t see our work, our options are obscured. We’re blind to our own capacity and we certainly can’t communicate that capacity to others.”

Creating transparency to enterprise initiatives, the prioritization of those initiatives, and how they map to persistently funded product teams is critical to balancing high-value business objectives with overall team capacity. This mapping activity can be done in a variety of ways. What’s important is that you create a visualization of existing product teams across the enterprise and how they “light up” or are impacted by enterprise OKRs and initiatives.

Example tactics include:

  • The Business and Technology draft high-level business cases that articulate an executive summary of the problem to be solved, the desired business outcomes and key metrics, and swag estimate of the overall investment.
  • Map the business cases to enterprise strategic themes. Determine if the business case enables enterprise strategies; if it does not, then consider prioritizing the business case down the list or removing it entirely (maximize work not done).
  • Map the business cases to the impacted product teams. This mapping activity can be done with stickies on a whiteboard, in a virtual whiteboard tool such as Mural, or even an Excel spreadsheet depicting business cases along the left axis and product portfolios across the top axis. “Light up” impacted products with conditional formatting to create a heat map visual of the demand against existing product teams.
  • Once the demand against product teams is visible, capacity can be assessed to determine which product portfolios should invest in additional fixed capacity teams, or if lower-demand product teams can be mobilized to higher-demand products.

The principle to consider here is “bring the work to the people” (product model) vs. “bring the people to the work” (project model). Reduce the number of investments by deduplicating development efforts by mapping the work to the existing product teams rather than spinning up new temporary teams repeatedly.

As leaders we often focus on the symptom we see—in this case, why are different parts of the organization not aligned in solving the key strategic business problems? However, a better starting place would be to ask how we might create a shared understanding that captures the problem to be solved as well as our current alignment and execution around that problem.

The military achieves this by creating a common operating picture—a unified visualization of key operational details that captures information across the leadership command structure. It is a hub of key information, providing a shared understanding of the problem and awareness of the current operational state of the organization and environment.

While a core DevOps idea has always been to bringing together Development and Operations through a set of shared tools, we need to go further. The broader business—not just the technology organization— needs to orient around the common problem to be solved, the current state of solutions to address that problem, our customers, and the markets we compete in.

Transparency creates awareness and shared understanding, and it enables alignment, focus, unity, and trust. Once transparency to strategic priorities is established across business lines and technology, then a productive conversation around prioritization can be had. Bringing together business and technology priorities creates a unified pathway forward for teams to discover and deliver the most efficient solutions to complex problems.

The combination of DevOps and shifting from project to product brings intentional ownership, autonomy, and a breakdown of working silos across functional organizations. Often in large, complex organizations the strategic silos remain at the enterprise level, which ultimately will lead to team disruption. In order to drive transparency around how strategies connect to execution, a centralized initiative backlog should be established. Simply put, anchor the organization’s single source of truth to one list of priorities. Then create alignment and unity by aligning strategic initiatives to OKRs and map the initiatives to persistent product teams.

A backlog is a list of items required to support a larger initiative. An initiative backlog is a list of initiatives required to support a business objective. Gathering all initiatives across business lines and technologies is critical to creating transparency across the enterprise. Figures 2, 3, and 4 offer example visualizations of how an organization might map enterprise objectives and initiatives to product team initiatives and OKRs.


Example 1


Example 2


Example 3

Actions You Can Take

To help drive transparency and create a common operating picture within an organization, try these accelerating actions and avoid these decelerating actions:

Accelerating Actions

  • Create centralized transparency to all “big rock” business priorities.
  • Map the “big rock” priorities to the product teams.
  • Leverage tools to outline problems to be solved & outcomes to be achieved—the what and why, not the how.

Decelerating Actions

  • Polished PowerPoint effect; using formal meetings/approvals & artifacts to create siloed formality with not visibility.
  • Spinning up temporary project teams that end and lack ownership of the value created.
  • Prioritizing in silos with no transparency to how priorities impact multiple teams.

To read about how to move from project to product to problem-solving, read the full guidance paper here.


The post From Project to Product to Problem-Solving: Driving Transparency appeared first on IT Revolution.

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11 days ago
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