May 24, 2013
USA Intellectual Property Theft Commission Recommends Malware!
Oh boy. The "Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property" has released its long awaited report, and it's 90 or so pages of doom, gloom, and the bizarre -- including one section that had me almost literally doing a "spit-take" onto my screens while sipping my morning coffee.
I'm not going to try critique the entire report here and now. As you'd expect, it presents a dire scenario of intellectual property theft run amok, and while offering only a few words of lip service to the grossly flawed measurement methodologies that vastly overstate dollar losses in various sectors, the report instead suggests that those exaggerations are actually understatements -- that the problem is far, far worse than we ever imagined. Oh, the horror. The horror.
But we expected this sort of skew to massively hyperbolize the underlying actual problems of IP theft.
What you may not have expected, however, is that the authors of this report appear to have been smoking "funny cigarettes" during its drafting. OK, we don't know this for a fact, but it's otherwise difficult to wrap your mind around this specific proposal in the "cyber" section of the report:
"Additionally, software can be written that will allow only authorized users to open files containing valuable information. If an unauthorized person accesses the information, a range of actions might then occur. For example, the file could be rendered inaccessible and the unauthorized user’s computer could be locked down, with instructions on how to contact law enforcement to get the password needed to unlock the account. Such measures do not violate existing laws on the use of the Internet, yet they serve to blunt attacks and stabilize a cyber incident to provide both time and evidence for law enforcement to become involved."
Booooing! Say what? Is this the parody section of the report? Something from "The Onion" or perhaps a "Saturday Night Live" skit?
I'm afraid they're serious. And what they're proposing is no less than the legitimizing of a form of malware that has attacked vast numbers of Internet users, costing them immense lost time, money, and grief.
You may have been unlucky enough to see this for yourself. It comes in various forms, but generally it claims to be a law enforcement warning (often saying it's from the FBI). It accuses you of having some kind of "illicit" material (usually a copyright violation and/or porn) on your system, and demands that you contact an address for "more information" -- or even that you make immediate payment of a "fine" to release your computer. Your webcam may even be surreptitiously used to include your photo to further confuse and upset you.
Of course, this is all a scam. If you go to that address, you'll likely download more malware, or be directed to provide credit card or bank account info to pay for your "violation" of law. Even if you pay, you have no assurance that this malware will go away. Even if it does seem to release you, it may hang around in the background sucking up your private information, bank account access data, and who knows what else.
Consumers attacked by this class of malware have spent enormous sums to get it actually cleaned out, and very many have been directly defrauded by it as well. And of course, these systems can't be used for anything else while the malware is actively threatening you.
So now we have the IP Commission suggesting that firms be allowed to use basically this same technique -- pop up on someone's computer because you *believe* they've stolen something from you, terrify them with law enforcement threats, and lock them out of their (possibly crucial) data and applications as well.
What the hell are these guys thinking? Outside of the enormous collateral damage this sort of "permitted malware" regime could do to innocents -- how would the average user be able to tell the difference between this class of malware and the fraudulent variety that is currently a scourge across the Net?
What's more, how can it possibly be justified to lock users out of their systems on this sort of unilateral basis? How much "theft" -- even when it actually occurred -- is enough to justify locking someone out of their private applications and data, some of which may be absolutely necessary to their daily lives.
I could get into a lot of technical details about this, but we can just cut to the chase for now: the whole concept is utterly insane, and frankly calls into question the competency of the commission in general.
With our own commissions coming up with idiotic, dangerous nonsense like this, we may have more to worry about from their kind of thinking than from the "cyber-crooks" themselves.
And that's really, seriously, scary.
May 23, 2013
For Shame: The Internet Cruelty Machine Torments GIF Inventor
I've never been quite sure what it is about the Net that tends to bring out, amplify, and exacerbate the cruel, infantile, and snarky side of so many people, including persons who really, seriously should know better.
Perhaps they get caught up in the moment like a rioting crowd, and the degrees of separation from "real life" -- allowing the easy spouting of bile that most of them would never do in person -- is also in play.
But none of this is any excuse for acting like a jerk.
Case in point, the rampant, mean-spirited attacks now being widely deployed against Steve Wilhite, who created the omnipresent "GIF" graphics format in 1987 while at CompuServe. Still widely used for conventional photos even in the face of more recent formats, it is the backbone of repeating animated image displays, from funny cats to serious diagrams.
A couple of days ago Steve -- who suffered a stroke in 2000 and now primarily communicates using email over the Net itself -- accepted a well-deserved lifetime achievement "Webby" award.
In the course of subsequent discussion, he noted his long-standing belief that GIF -- a term we must remember he invented -- should be pronounced with a soft G rather than a hard G -- not the first time this issue has arisen by any means.
Immediately, the Web pounced in ridicule, with satirical articles, obscene comments, and even a video whose producer claims is in fun but just comes off crude and cruel -- like pulling wings off insects.
As it happens, I've always pronounced GIF with a hard G -- not Steve's pronunciation. I always figured that since the G stood for Graphics, the hard G made the most sense. And I'm not going to change that now.
But for the love of the Net and basic human decency, can't we give the man an award -- someone who provided us with a tool that has become part and parcel of the Web -- without tormenting him afterwards like children during recess torturing another kid about the pronunciation of his name?
As the creator of GIF, Steve Wilhite outranks us all when it comes to what he feels is the "official" pronunciation. But you and I can still pronounce GIF any way we choose, and we can do so without behaving like asses.
Consider growing up just a little bit people, please.
May 20, 2013
Yahoo's Big Tumble Into Big Porn, Big Sleaze, and Perhaps, Big Trouble
By now you've likely heard that Tumblr is selling itself to Yahoo for just over a billion bucks in cash. Oh wait, excuse me, that's Tumblr. -- officially, there's a period after Tumblr, a flourish added to the current vogue of purpsly drpping leters frm yor nme.
Yahoo wants to be "cool" again -- young, hip, bad, fresh, sick, tight -- or whatever your favorite current euphemism for youth monetization might be.
In furtherance of this worthy end, Yahoo will be providing Tumblr's (insert the periods yourself if you must) 26-year-old, high school dropout founder with a payday of something on the order of a quarter of a billion dollars -- and each Tumblr employee something like a paltry six meg each.
To which I say -- more power to them! Man, if you can get it, take it! While it appears that P.T. Barnum never actually uttered the phrase usually attributed to him -- concerning the birth rate of suckers -- it's true nonetheless.
In the last couple of days, I've realized that a surprising number of folks have either never heard of Tumblr, or purport to know virtually nothing about its content and user policies. The old echo chamber strikes again -- it's easy for us to forget that not everyone spends their days thinking about the Net.
The fact is that Tumblr brings to Yahoo a rather fascinating dilemma. It would be unfair to call Tumblr a sleaze site per se -- because they do host a wide variety of utterly un-sleazy materials posted by their freewheeling users on a virtually endless series of "microblogs."
But, truth be told, Tumblr is also an almost bottomless pit of seamy, gross, and in some cases borderline illicit postings of all sorts.
The topic range in these particular categories is both broad and deep, and of the sort to make your creepy Uncle Ernie both pant and vomit with joy.
We're not talking here simply about happy adult pornography, but bestiality, self-mutilation, racism, anorexia fan sites, near c-porn, and so, so much more.
Which brings us back to Yahoo.
I'm a first amendment, free speech guy, and so my concern in this context is not with that Tumblr content itself -- however disgusting I personally find much of it to be. Like I say all the time, censorship on the Internet doesn't work and just makes things worse -- don't even try it.
But seeming corporate hypocrisy related to a billion dollar acquisition really bugs me.
Yahoo is claiming that it's going to be "hands off" Tumblr -- that (at least for now) Tumblr will operate separately with no changes to their usage terms.
"Tumblr and Yahoo will be independent," said Yahoo today -- on the same day they moved (with considerable fanfare) the Yahoo official blog to a tumbler.com address. Hmm.
But sooner or later, Yahoo is going to want to monetize the Tumbler throngs, and therein awaits the advertising trap.
Pretty much the worst thing that could happen to most major advertisers is to have their products pitched in conjunction with serious sleaze, especially in this age of flash boycotts.
What to do? Well, obviously Yahoo will be pushing for Tumbler users to be rigorous about accurately labeling their sites -- e.g. as "Not Safe For Pretty Much Anyone" -- but just like right now, many users will ignore this, and likely others will begin purposely mislabeling as a form of protest against Yahoo's takeover.
Algorithms can try to ferret out some of this automatically -- "Running Procedure sicko_seek-pns49300A.3" -- but a lot will still slip through, so to speak.
All told, it's almost impossible to visualize anything beyond a relatively near-term future where the existing full content range on Tumblr will be tolerable to Yahoo.
My guess is that Yahoo will be subtly working to drive out those "troublesome" aspects of the Tumblr user base over time -- one way or another -- ideally before the first big public blowup in the "Yahoo era" over Tumblr content.
This won't happen overnight. It's in Yahoo's interests right now to try make Tumblr users of all stripes feel that they're wanted, valued, and cherished. Welcome to the joyful embrace of Yahoo!
But if I were a Tumblr user with content that was, shall we say, considerably divergent from the mainstream, I'd be starting to look around right now for a different place to host my stuff, and some new URLs to forward over to good ol' Uncle Ernie.
May 19, 2013
Attack of the Google Snarkers
I hadn't planned on writing anything about this, but watching the continuing stream of obnoxious snarking -- both in blogs and some mainstream media -- following Larry Page's appearance at the end of Wednesday's "Google I/O" keynote, my irritation level has risen to the point where some comment seems apropos.
Let's get the disclaimer out of the way. I've never met Larry. I am currently consulting to Google. Everything I say here represents my thoughts only, and any blame for them should be attributed to me alone. OK, let's move on.
Regular readers know that I am not a fan of snark in general. In fact, snarky comments are one of the easiest ways to get bounced from my Google+ threads. As far as I'm concerned, they're almost always cheap shots aimed at minimizing real issues, to try get a quick "gee, ain't I clever" laugh. Some folks love that stuff. That's their choice, of course. Personally, I feel they usually detract from serious and useful discussion.
I dare say I wasn't the only one surprised when Larry walked on stage Wednesday. There was no obvious reason why he had to do that, not to mention his extended Q&A with the audience.
In the wake of this, we've seen pundits and writers attempting to characterize his remarks in a variety of snarky ways. I'm not going to provide those venues with link juice here.
And in fact, that kind of snarking is painfully representative of the kinds of attitudes that have driven our political system into toxic paralysis, making it so difficult for so many creative people to ponder the big questions, to consider the tough "what ifs?," without being mercilessly attacked by the champions of the status quo.
My interpretation of Larry's remarks is that he wasn't revealing a specific business plan, he was exploring a *philosophy* bigger than the limitations and constraints that encumber us today -- not just at the nexus of government vs. technology but in many other ways as well.
It is *incredibly* important that such thinking be encouraged, not attacked or ridiculed.
To ponder what could be achieved with different legal constraints than exist today is both valid and valuable, because we don't live in a static world at all -- much as some people would prefer as little change as possible.
Well within the lifetimes of many of you reading this, it was *illicit* to plug your own equipment -- even the simplest of phones -- into a telephone line. This seems inconceivable today, but imagine if nobody back then had pondered the question of what might be accomplished if we could legally hook our own data and other devices to the telephone network. Very likely, the Internet as we know it today might not exist at all.
Google is large and influential, and there are many venues for reasoned discussion about Google-related issues.
But snarking -- especially aimed at an individual like Larry who voluntarily chose to share some personal and philosophical thoughts very much worth pondering -- yes, especially the snarking we've heard over the last few days, is counterproductive, disgraceful, and -- to the detriment of us all -- very much calculated to discourage honest consideration of our complex and mutable futures.
The purveyors of such poison should not only be shunned, but should be utterly ashamed of themselves.
May 11, 2013
Newt Gingrich Meets the Smartphone (Annotated Edition) [Video]
Newt Gingrich Meets the Smartphone (Annotated Edition)
(YouTube / 3 minutes)
May 09, 2013
A 3D-Printed Gun Meets the Streisand Effect
Regular readers here and in other venues will know by now that I am a very strong supporter of gun control legislation (now more popularly called "gun safety" regulation for political correctness). Not only that, I consider the NRA and its minions inside and outside of government to be directly responsible for millions of innocent deaths at the bidding of their gun merchant supporters. And that's just for starters.
But even I can recognize bogosity when I see it.
By now you've probably heard about the downloadable plans for printing a plastic gun on a (currently fairly expensive, but cheaper they will continue to become) 3D printer.
After the simple gun was determined to essentially function as designed, the plans were posted to the Web a couple of days ago.
Today comes word that, reportedly, the U.S. State Department has asked the plans' distributor to remove them from the Net, while legal issues are being explored.
The parties involved have apparently complied.
But over 100K copies of those plans had already been downloaded.
You know where this is going.
The very act of attempting to bottle up this data has drawn far more attention to the plans themselves than would otherwise likely have been the case -- a textbook definition of the so-called "Streisand Effect" in action, a phenomenon we've discussed here many times in the past.
And of course, the plans themselves are still trivially available.
I found them -- intact and complete -- on a mirror site within 30 seconds, using an obvious three word search query, just a few minutes ago.
Outside of the just plain uselessness of trying to block such information after it has already been published -- how many times must this truism be repeated? -- there are a couple of other obvious ironies in play.
One is that just as attempts to censor the Net will almost always be ultimately futile (but still potentially very damaging to individuals or organizations caught up in those attempts), trying to control 3D printing is almost certainly going to be equally (if not even more) futile in the long run.
And the other irony? Who the hell needs to print a gun when the NRA and its ilk have made it trivial for pretty much anyone, including the mentally ill, people on the no-fly terrorism watch list, and basically anyone else not carting around pressure-cooker bombs (and maybe them too), to easily and legally purchase cheap, powerful, much more effective weapons with a nod and a wink at any gun show -- no background checks usually required!
So all around, from every angle, this whole story only serves to demonstrate the depth of society's confusion regarding the Internet, 3D printing, and guns.
To paraphrase the inestimable "Firesign Theatre" -- I'm afraid we may all be bozos on this bus.
Obama and Others: When "Transparency" Becomes a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
When you're basically a techie who thinks a lot about policy -- as I am -- there's a natural tendency to approach issues specifically and individually, like bugs to be stamped out of complex program code.
Frankly, it's also easier to write that way, to focus on individual issues rather than broader, often conflicting concepts -- that can be far more difficult to paint into an intelligible portrait of words.
But the old platitudes and idioms like "not seeing the forest for the trees" or "connecting the dots" exist for a reason. Sometimes you do need to take the "long view" -- both in space and time -- to really understand what's going on, and how we're likely to be impacted.
I was reminded of this today, as I noted all the excitement around the Net over the Obama administration's announcement of a "government open data" initiative, to help make previously unavailable or hard to access data broadly available to the public to "Enhance Government Efficiency and Fuel Economic Growth" -- as the White House press release puts it.
This is certainly a welcome development in government transparency, well deserving of praise. The excitement is understandable.
And yet ...
Over the last few days there have been other reminders relating to this administration -- paralleling distressing events in Europe and elsewhere -- that remind us how "transparency" can be a nightmarish technological trap as well, depending upon how "transparency" is defined, and who is defining it.
For it's the same Obama administration pushing for "open government data" that is also pushing for a vast expansion of FBI access to our telecommunications and other personal data.
The reported scope of this thrust is both deep and wide. Demands that Internet services provide "real-time" wiretapping facilities -- ironic for an administration pushing cybersecurity, given that such mechanisms actually weaken security by providing new avenues for black hat hacking.
And this is the same administration that is actively fighting to maintain the intolerable legal structure under which warrantless access to our centrally stored email and other data has become such a travesty, threatening consumer confidence in the very cloud-based services that are a crucial aspect of our modern Internet environment.
It appears that President Obama doesn't only ostensibly want government to be transparent to us, but also that everything we write or say on the phone or Internet should be "transparent" to government as well.
That's a rather Faustian sort of bargain that I suspect most of us didn't know we were signing up for, so to speak.
To be sure, this isn't a mindset restricted to Obama, or one political party, or even the USA.
Over in Europe (and elsewhere) a similar "wolf in sheep's clothing" hypocrisy has also taken hold in governments, in dimensions ranging from censorship to surveillance.
In the EU, demands for massive law enforcement inspired, government-mandated consumer data retention regimes have become common, at the same time that dangerous, Orwellian concepts like "the right to be forgotten" and micromanaged censorship of search results are frequently promoted by regulators and other officials.
Meanwhile, we see a fetishistic focus on harmless Web cookies and anonymous ad personalization systems that have hurt nobody, while government demands for politically expedient censorship (doomed to ultimate failure, but still intensely harassing and treacherous) continue to intensify.
Some of these specific hypocrisies are also beginning to show up here in the U.S. as well.
It is almost a given that governments -- going back to the dawn of human civilization -- will rarely be able to resist the urge to try entice us with shiny baubles with one hand, while eviscerating our liberties with the other.
You don't even need to invoke concepts like "evil" to understand this. More often than not, these leaders genuinely feel that they're doing this for our own good, to protect all the "little people" who just don't understand what we really need.
Given that this is pretty much the historical status quo, you may feel comfortable with this state of affairs, or at least resigned to it.
That would be an unfortunate attitude in the extreme, for all of us.
Because the Internet, with its inherent ability to allow us to communicate directly and instantly between individuals, countries, and cultures in a manner never before imagined, does provide us with enormously powerful tools and capabilities unavailable to citizenries of the past.
This is why, not at all coincidentally, that so many governments around the globe are trying so very hard to control the Net, to shape it to their own image -- a task fortunately made very difficult by the Internet's fundamental design philosophy.
But that technological genius will be of comparatively little use to us if we don't avail ourselves of it, and especially if we don't "connect the dots" and "see the forest for the trees" in terms of the issues where the Internet's communications power can be brought productively to bear, especially when governmental hypocrisies are involved.
Governments will keep trying to entice us with their baubles, but the Internet is the very foundation of our rights and freedoms for the future -- most especially for the "little people" like us.
May 08, 2013
Search Like a Spook! - NSA's Guide to Web Research!
Search Like a Spook! - NSA's Guide to Web Research! Just declassified! Not a joke! How to "hack" search engines like a government agent!
Seriously, this 600+ page PDF, which NSA just released under a FOIA request, is 100% legit. I downloaded it myself from NSA, and am providing this local copy as a public service. It's over 40MB, so please be patient.
May 06, 2013
Adobe Gives the Little Guys the Finger
You may have heard by now that Adobe, long-time manufacturer of Photoshop and related software products, has finally brought out the big hammer, and smashed it down firmly on the heads of individuals and small businesses.
What? You haven't heard this?
Perhaps you heard that Adobe is switching to an "Internet always required, subscription only" model for their "Creative Suite" products. If you've seen those articles today, you probably saw business writers waxing poetic over what a wonderful move this is by (and for) Adobe. These same authors are generally implying that it's a great deal for users, too.
And it is -- if you're willing to let Adobe weld a ring and chain to your nose (and wallet).
The clue to this seeming paradox is revealed if you look at the reader comments on most of these articles, which (at least so far) seem to be overwhelmingly negative.
How could this be? After all, these have always been premium software products, why should anyone get bent out of shape by their move to a subscription model and requiring the Net for use?
The devil, as always, is in the details.
There are some applications that naturally benefit greatly from a move to "the cloud" in various contexts, especially when staying up to the minute with security fixes is involved.
Email and document collaboration are two obvious examples, with Microsoft trying to play catch-up with Google in this context.
And even then, pricing matters -- a lot.
Basic Google services are free. The business version of Google Apps is $5/user/month (a bit less on an annual basis).
But Adobe is aiming for much bigger bucks -- their pricing schedule shows monthly fees up to an order of magnitude higher than that $5, or even much more.
Now, obviously Photoshop has a very different feature set than Google Docs.
And Adobe's prices have always been of the premium variety, even as increasingly powerful Open Source tools (like GIMP, for example) have become very widely available.
For larger businesses for whom cost isn't much of an object, it's (as the old saying goes) six of one or half a dozen of the other whether they're on a subscription model with Adobe or not. They're likely pretty much locked-in anyway for logistical and workflow reasons if nothing else.
But if you're like an awful lot of people and smaller businesses I know, you've justified the premium price of Adobe Creative software products on the basis that you simply didn't need to upgrade them all that often for the features you need.
Perhaps you skipped every other upgrade cycle, or upgraded even less frequently, and have been quite happy anyway.
Well, Adobe isn't happy with you. They want you to be upgraded at all times at those premium prices, no ifs, ands, or buts. And not only are you forced to pay premium prices, if you ever stop paying, you're left with ... nothing. You don't even have an older version that suited you just fine to run any more. Poof!
Adobe claims their pricing offers an "inexpensive" way into their Creative world (hey, even pay without an annual commitment if you're willing to hand over a lot more cash -- not a small increment, mind you).
But this is the oldest game in the book, evolved to a fine art by generations of used car salesmen. Hook in the suckers by concentrating only on the monthly fee, and by all means don't let them think about how those will be adding up over the months and years.
Again, we're not talking $5 a month here. We're talking much higher amounts.
It seems obvious that part of Adobe's plan (in addition to the added anti-piracy, forced connectivity aspects) is to cull the herd of those "unproductive ingrates" -- the customers who simply refused to upgrade every cycle to get the latest fancy doodads that they didn't require or use. And in the process, Adobe wants to sucker in folks who don't bother calculating the cumulative costs on those monthly charges, even though most of these users would likely do just fine with some of the great Open Source alternatives (if they even know about them, which they probably don't).
I've actually been a long-time supporter of Adobe products like Photoshop and Premiere. But yes -- I'll admit it -- I'm one of those "bottom-feeders" by Adobe's definition, who somehow has managed to be satisfied with older versions of their products without frequently funneling more cash in Adobe's direction.
I'm also a big supporter of cloud-based services -- they can bring great benefits in an array of contexts -- where they're appropriate, make sense, and above all are appropriately priced.
But as we see with Adobe, it's also possible to use this model and an aggressive pricing structure to fleece the sheep, and frankly, I believe that is what Adobe is doing here as far as individuals and many small businesses are concerned.
Of course, this is only my opinion. Perhaps you disagree with me totally regarding Adobe's new philosophy.
In that case, you might wish to wander over to the many articles about Adobe's changes that are filling up with negative comments from upset Adobe users.
I'm sure that Adobe would appreciate your posted thoughts in support of their brave new world.
May 04, 2013
Dealing with Claims That the Government is Recording All Phone Calls
You may have heard buzzing by now that the talking heads of cable news are all aflutter over comments (on CNN) by a "former FBI counterterrorism agent" implying that the federal government is recording all domestic telephone calls, and need merely to go digging into that archive to find "conversations of interest" related to the Boston bombings.
OK, let's talk about this for a moment (no pun intended). Many years ago, I publicly discussed the data requirements for "recording all telephone calls" and postulated that it was becoming technically feasible. This is not, however, the same as saying it is actually being done. There are several considerations.
First, I take anything said by "former FBI counterterrorism" operatives with more than a grain of salt. This whole sector -- like the intelligence community in general -- is rife with layers of purposeful misdirection and obfuscation. Never take anything you hear from these spooks at face value. Never.
It is now fairly well known that NSA, et al. have for decades taken the view that "merely" recording traffic is different from actually examining it -- but this has been almost entirely in the scope of international communications, and I know of no legal predicate under which NSA (or FBI, or another government entity) could collect *domestic* communications legally *en masse* as described. Of course, laws can be broken.
But the biggest reason I am doubtful of these claims is that I find it difficult to believe that surreptitious data collection of phone calls on that scale is possible without a very noticeable dribble of very explicit leaks. Somehow the same people who feel that the government is incompetent at most things believe that the government could keep all that data bottled up, with all those enticing phone calls (whether related to national security or just phone sex), without leaks.
I'm not talking here about one guy with claims about a secret telco cabinet.
There'd be so many people at various levels who would have to be involved in such a massive operation as a vacuum cleaner recording of domestic calls, that it's almost inconceivable there wouldn't be leaks not only about specifics of the program but of actual calls. The amount of money that would be offered by the gossip sites alone would be astronomical.
There's another problem too. You can't explicitly *use* any of the data from such a program without risking its exposure and an enormous blowback against everyone involved. Even if you only use the data to try track other leads, you risk massive unraveling if anybody slips up on something of this scope.
Now, obviously, I could be wrong in my speculation. I have no inside knowledge to impart. Perhaps somewhere inside the Beltway there are guys sitting at giant screens in hidden basements reading this right now and chuckling at my naivete.
Or perhaps, we're indeed being suckered by claims of capabilities that do not actually exist.
We shall see in the fullness of time.
May 02, 2013
Expel and Arrest the Best Students: The USA's Road to Ruin
By now you've probably heard the story of 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot in (you almost could guess this) the once great but now poster child for government mediocrity state of Florida.
When she mixed a couple of chemicals together as an experiment on school grounds, she created a micro-explosion -- really just a loud poof -- that didn't hurt anybody or damage anything. The same sort of experiment that thousands of creative youngsters have performed for generations, back in the days when chemistry sets still had actual chemicals in them, and creativity itself wasn't considered to be a crime.
Should she have been doing this without explicit permission and supervision? Probably not. A reasonable punishment might have been a safety lecture, or at the far end a couple of days of after school detention.
But this is Florida. Her high school called out the goon squad, had her arrested, hauled away in handcuffs, and charged with a felony (to be tried as an adult) -- possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device. In other words, the lunatic State of Florida is hell bent on destroying her life.
Did I mention that Kiera is also black? Good ol' Florida. If there's one thing you can depend on from the "Sunshine State," it's that when it comes to health care, the justice system, education, and pretty much everything else, they'll do everything in the most punitive, unthinking, unethical, and morally corrupt manner possible.
Just to be clear, I'm not saying that everyone in Florida fits these deplorable categories. But the people of Florida get the kind of government they vote for, and can't complain if they're judged by the results, just like everywhere else.
And I'll even cut Florida a break. They're not alone in their idiotic, asinine behavior when it comes to education and dealing with kids.
Across the country, we've been treated to a late night horror movie sequence of young children -- some barely able to walk by themselves -- being tasered, handcuffed, arrested, interrogated, expelled, and worse for all manner of harmless behaviors -- with school district officials usually hiding like cowards behind so-called "zero tolerance" rules that help to make the USA educational system a laughingstock of the world.
When we have little children being accosted by authorities for biting their cookies into the shape of a gun, you know the lunatics are running the asylum.
I haven't heard reports of American children being waterboarded by school officials yet, but given the actions of officials to date -- most of whom probably shouldn't be let anywhere near children at all -- we'd be unwise to totally discount the possibility of such behavior. (You think I'm exaggerating? You've heard the one about the strip searches of kids to try find a few missing dollars? When you have that kind of perverted antisocial mentality running schools, I'd submit that pretty much anything could happen.)
Now admittedly, there are some things that the American educational system is good at. For example, there's increasing evidence that we're just stellar at driving children to the edge of mental and physical illness (and increasingly, beyond the edge) with standardized tests that often cover material that was never taught, and that put such pressures on the system that kids are vomiting and teachers are rigging results to try get by. Great work, if your goal is making sure that our country's competitive decline in the global community becomes the most permanent and prominent aspect of our history going forward.
But everything is relative, and we can pull the camera back even farther, and see how the failings of our schools represent the broader failings of a corrupt and toxic political process, with many prominent politicians sounding like they themselves never made it past third grade. But ask them to quote the bible, and they'll bend your ear with their explanations of what God wants for us all.
Small wonder then that we see increasing political attacks on science research and funding, and attempts to replace peer review with bible thumping.
Sometimes it's not easy to see the forest for the trees.
But when it comes to the utter insanity that has increasingly become part and parcel of our educational and political systems, the "connect the dots" cause and effect is staring us in the face, directly from the mirror.
This is our fault. It is perhaps the ultimate realization of Pogo's "We have met the enemy and he is us."
We have permitted this nonsense, this anti-intellectual horror to metastasize throughout our society, even as we push into the Internet age where science, reason, and education will be critical, crucial, indispensable to our personal and collective futures.
It is unacceptable for the small and perverse minds who would declare an inquisitive teenager a felon, or a cookie-wielding child a menace, to be anointed with such power to literally destroy our civilization -- piece by piece, child by child.
For it is in education and our children that the entirety of our legacy ultimately rests. It is not at all an exaggeration to suggest that if we don't change course from toxic stupidity, we are ultimately and deservedly doomed.
Changing the course of a gigantic ship headed toward a waterfall of destruction cannot be accomplished instantly.
But we can at the very least begin by introducing a modicum of common sense back into school policies that currently seem to have been based on prison procedures, and to stop using handcuffs, jail cells, and electric prods as our most visible and powerful educational tools.
The choices, as always, remain very much our own.
April 28, 2013
"Sixteen Gigs" (With Apologies to Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford)
When you really think about the stranglehold that the dominant ISPs have on Internet access services here in the USA, it's easy to be concerned, upset, or even angry. In the past when folks felt this way, protest songs were a common form of both relief and exposition.
If it worked for them, perhaps it can work for us. This made me feel a little bit better, anyway. Enjoy.
To the tune of "Sixteen Tons"
With apologies to Merle Travis, who created the classic.
And to Tennessee Ernie Ford, who made it into a standard.
MP3 Audio Performance (2:23 minutes / ~2MB)
Lyrics Copyright © 2013 Lauren Weinstein. All rights reserved.
My job is pushing files,
Through the whole darned day.
It's as boring as hell,
And it sure doesn't pay.
All bits and bytes,
And error screens,
A few hours of that,
And you want to just scream.
You push 16 gigs,
What do you get?
Connections so sluggish,
And a bandwidth cap yet.
Almost every day,
There's a new damned fee.
I owe my soul to my I-S-P.
My service provider,
Says I shouldn't complain.
He says we dumb subscribers,
Just deserve our pain.
Since we're so darn stupid,
That we pay him at all,
We should be satisfied,
With connections that crawl.
You push 16 gigs,
What do you get?
Connections so sluggish,
And a bandwidth cap yet.
Almost every day,
There's a new damned fee.
I owe my soul to my I-S-P.
I tried to switch providers,
But it got me nil.
From frying pan to fire,
For the same high bill.
My new data speed,
Is running just as slow.
And when I try to complain,
They tell me just to blow.
You push 16 gigs,
What do you get?
Connections so sluggish,
And a bandwidth cap yet.
Almost every day,
There's a new damned fee.
I owe my soul to my I-S-P.
Our Internet speeds,
Are just a joke,
It's so true.
We screwed this all up,
And it makes me so blue.
I have only one wish left,
Before my eyes,
I pray to see Google Fiber,
Before I die.
What do you get?
Connections so sluggish,
And a bandwidth cap yet.
Almost every day,
There's a new damned fee.
I owe my soul to my I-S-P.
- - -
April 27, 2013
The Coming War Against Personal Photography and Video
Are you ready for the imagery war -- the war against personal photography and capturing of video? You'd better be.
The title of this piece actually isn't entirely accurate. In some ways, this war isn't just coming, it's already begun. Forces are lining up on both sides, under the radar for most of us so far, but preparing for action. And right now, if I had to place a bet (cash, not bitcoins, please), I'd reluctantly have to predict the anti-imagery folks have the better chance of winning.
There are many facets to this struggle, and they interact in complicated and sometimes even seemingly contradictory ways. It's largely a battle pitting technology against a range of personal sensibilities -- and politics will be playing an enormous role.
And please note the following well -- if we techies attempt to argue that no significant relevant issues actually exist, if we are perceived to be arrogant in our reactions to the various concerns being expressed, we are likely to be steamrolled by the opposition.
I said there were contradictory forces in play, and man, do I mean it.
In the aftermath of the Boston bombings -- cameras were everywhere there -- which while horrendous and tragic, killed and injured fewer people than just a few days of "routine" gun violence here in the USA, we're hearing the predictable calls for vastly expanded government-operated video surveillance networks, even though virtually every study shows that while these systems may be useful in solving crimes after the fact, they are of little to no use in preventing crime or terrorism in the first place. This has proven true even in cities like London, where there's a camera focused on pretty much every individual pimple on each Londoner's face.
In some cities, like New York, the surveillance-industrial complex has its fangs deeply into government for the big bucks. It's there we heard the Police Commissioner -- just hours ago, really -- claim that "privacy is off the table."
And of course, there's the rise of wearable cameras and microphones by law enforcement, generally bringing praise from people who assume they will reduce police misconduct, but also dangerously ignoring a host of critical questions.
Will officers be able to choose when the video is running? How will the video be protected from tampering? How long will it be archived? Can it be demanded by courts? Divorce lawyers? Insurance companies? Can it be enhanced and used to trigger prosecutions of new crimes, perhaps based on items in private homes captured on video when officers enter? What will be the penalties when clips of these videos, often involving people in personal situations of high drama and embarrassment, often through no fault of their own, leak onto video sharing sites?
All of this and more is the gung-ho, government surveillance side of the equation.
But what about the personal photography and video side? What of individual or corporate use of these technologies in public and private spaces?
Will the same politicians promoting government surveillance in all its glory take a similar stance toward nongovernmental applications?
Writing already on the wall suggests not.
Inklings of the battles to come are already visible, if you know where to look.
The push-backs against Google Street View -- more pronounced outside the USA to date but always simmering in the background -- are one obvious example. Even though this imagery is captured either from public thoroughfares or with explicit permission, this extremely useful service has generated considerable angst, and even though the concerns are way overblown, we can't deny the angst itself is real and of political note.
An ironic side note. People not infrequently send me emails asking if I can tell them how to have their homes removed from Street View. I point them at the established procedure, but I always mention that having a gap in the imagery where your home should be is more likely to attract attention to it than anything else. That never seems to dissuade them, however. We're dealing with emotion, not logic.
Governments -- while ever expanding their own surveillance regimes -- can be extremely antagonistic to personal photography.
Only recently has a broad right for individuals to record police activities in public places been established by courts, and trying to exercise that right can still net you a club across the face and a trip to a cell. Individuals are routinely harassed when taking hobby photos of railroads, or bridges, or storefronts -- or pretty much anything these days, based on asserted (but generally unsupportable) security or privacy grounds.
Anti-paparazzi laws restricting personal photography have begun appearing, as have a variety of laws aimed at the perverted practice of "upskirting" -- both classes of laws often subject to much broader interpretation by overzealous authorities.
Laws have been proposed restricting aerial photography in general, and drone-based video capture in particular (the latter already seeing considerable political traction).
And as an outgrowth of parental concerns (particularly regarding third-party Internet postings of associated still and video photography) there are efforts underway to restrict public photography of children by other than their parents -- in a wide variety of public locales -- a topic with a particularly powerful influence on politicians, we should remember.
Laymen often assume that if you're in a public place, you can legally do pretty much whatever you want in these sorts of contexts.
But that's not always true, and is subject to the whims of our increasingly toxic political environment.
For example, many people believe that you can legally, secretly record conversations in public. But this varies state by state. In California, for example, under most circumstances you cannot legally record a conversation, even in public settings, unless all parties to the conversation agree. This holds true regardless of the recording medium -- anything from an old tape machine to the latest wearable video device.
This holds true in mobile environments like personal cars as well, though governmental regulatory focus in that respect is more likely to be aimed initially at perceived cognitive distraction issues.
At the federal level, there is already a concerted push to tightly regulate both handheld and hands-free devices, with a special emphasis on any devices in the visual field that can be used for texting, display of movies, or pretty much anything else. The irony here is that while one could argue that, for example, a wearable GPS mapping display would be less distracting than glancing over at a dash-mounted screen, the capabilities of these devices to engage in a broad range of other potentially more distracting activities will likely attract the attention of insurance companies and regulators (this is actually already a topic of discussion among both groups).
There is in fact something of a possible worst case scenario that we would be foolish to ignore. While techies and many others will be enamored with and responsible in their use of wearable video/audio gear like Google Glass, the potential exists for this class of technology in mass deployment to trigger significant political and regulatory backlash that could negatively affect other types of photography as well -- everything from expensive cameras to the image capturing capabilities of cellphones.
To understand this risk we must remember that politicians generally take the path of least resistance with the highest "CYA" potential.
While spy-cams and other similar tech have long existed, the widespread availability of wearable gear outside that context (note we're not talking only about Google Glass, but the inevitable cheap knock-offs that will not meet Google standards) could, for example, trigger nervous parents' worst fears.
There will be a significant percentage of the population -- including in stores, restaurants, other businesses, or wherever, who will be concerned that in the restroom, or the gym, or the strategy meeting, or wherever, that they just aren't sure that the guy with the glasses isn't actually recording or streaming at that moment. People who have heard stories of malware accessing webcams without lighting the activity lights may never quite trust such signals again.
One would hope that politeness, common sense, and evolving voluntary social conventions would deal with these issues appropriately, reducing the pressure for governmental involvement.
But again, we're dealing here with emotion more than logic, and emotion makes laws. Bad laws usually, but laws nonetheless. And laws are often written with the minority of people who are bad actors in mind, not the bulk of reasonable folks.
We all still end up having to live with these laws, in any case.
I don't have a "magic wand" solution for this situation.
My gut feeling though is that we'd be making an enormous mistake by appearing arrogant about these matters.
Already, in various venues where enthusiastic supporters of such technology gather, the primary attitude most visibly espoused has been to dismiss those persons expressing concerns about these technologies as being "out of touch" or easily ignored or beneath contempt.
If you really want to have politicians and regulators come down like a ton of bricks not only on this technology, but on other aspects of personal photography as well, then by all means continue with that demeanor.
On the other hand, if you'd prefer a more beneficial outcome all around, I'd strongly urge putting aside any arrogance, and instead working with others to engage politicians and regulators in reasoned, logical discussions that actually address their concerns (whether we personally feel that those concerns are valid or not) in a cooperative way. Otherwise, we're likely setting ourselves up for a big fall.
It would be ironic indeed if in the war against personal photography and video, those of us wanting the maximal possible photographic freedom allowed our own swagger to effectively point our own "weapons" at our own heads.
April 23, 2013
In the Wake of Boston Bombings, Misguided Demands for YouTube Censorship
Frankly, I was expecting such a call, and sure enough it arrived yesterday. A reporter for a significant media outlet wanted my opinion on the thesis that YouTube and other video sites should be self-censored and/or censored by governments to remove "all materials" that could "be of help" to would-be terrorists.
This meme is not new, but was inevitably resurrected with word that the Boston bombing brothers supposedly were inspired and trained largely from Internet videos posted by various radical groups.
Now, before we proceed, a few words about the media. It's popular these days to paint mainstream media in particular with a very broad, largely negative brush. In my personal experience, this is mostly unwarranted.
Most reporters I come into contact with -- and this holds true for print, web, radio, and television venues -- are trying to do a good job, often under significant editorial time pressures and associated constraints.
The majority are interested in getting straight information to help them make an accurate presentation. I call these reporters the "seekers of knowledge."
There is however also a minority that are essentially only interested in getting quotes to try add "gravitas" to an already largely pre-written story, article, or other presentation that is predestined to take a particular point of view regardless of what facts come to the reporter's attention. We can call these reporters the "seekers of confirmation."
If your statements to the latter type do not well synchronize with their preconceived ideas and points of view, you can depend on your input being discarded and, most likely, you will never hear from them again.
The reporter who contacted me yesterday was indeed in this second category.
So after I explained to him that not only was the concept of video (or for that matter, other information) censorship that he was proposing a completely abhorrent and utterly impractical attack on civil liberties, I was not surprised when he suddenly "got another call" and quickly terminated the conversation without so much as a thank you.
I believe what really upset him was my explanation that such Internet censorship attempts could actually be extremely counterproductive. They would mainly serve to make it more difficult for authorities to easily observe what sorts of materials were circulating, since censoring of public sites would by no means eliminate "items of concern" from availability, but would instead drive them underground into the so-called "darknets" where, for example, photos and videos related to child abuse remain widely accessible, despite attempts by service providers and authorities to stamp them out.
Especially when dealing with videos or other information that are espousing radical concepts, even violence, censorship is not the answer. Censorship attempts will not be effective, and can very easily make the problems that censorship was aimed to address much worse, not better.
The appropriate response to information of concern is not to try eliminate or block access to those ideas and concepts, but rather to provide more information, better ideas and concepts, a powerful counterpoints.
Trying to censor even outright lies will almost always fail. The antidote to lies is not censorship, but truth.
And truth be told, often the forces of evil are much faster to adopt new technologies to their advantage, while their adversaries stay stuck in old, ineffective methods of battle -- like censorship -- that are as obsolete as lobotomies in the Internet world of the 21st century.
There's a maxim that "for every complex problem there's a simple, wrong answer."
In the wake of the tragedies in Boston, it is to be expected that even many well-meaning individuals and authorities would be desperately searching for a "simple" answer to the complicated, multifaceted specter of terrorism.
But that old saying still holds true. There are no simple solutions for terrorism. Attempts to counter associated videos and related materials with censorship are doomed to failure.
Rather, the answer again is more information, not less.
The answer is straight talk about why terrorism is a path not to justice, but to evil.
We must learn to use the tools of the Internet at least as well as our adversaries, not by playing desperate, hopeless games of censorship Whac-A-Mole, but by uploading light to push out the darkness.
Get to work on those videos.
April 21, 2013
The Boston Bombings, Knee-Jerks, Arthur C. Clarke, and CISPA
A couple of days ago on my Google+ feed, I mentioned that this has been one of those weeks where I've really felt that I've been channeling Mr. Spock.
This generated an immediate comment from one of my regular followers, who noted that it seems to him that I'm actually doing that 52 weeks a year.
But as we consider the events in Boston of the last week, it's worth keeping in mind the incredibly bad decisions flowing mainly from emotional responses to 9/11, that appear poised for a repeat performance now.
I don't really need to remind you of the list, but here's just a quick refresher of a few examples. Emotion over logic yielded us DHS and TSA with their heavy-handed abuses, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been unimaginably expensive in terms of lives and treasure with no real positive results to be seen, the rise of targeted "video game" killings via drones with significant deaths of innocents including children, and generally an increase in anti-U.S. hatred that has radicalized even some American citizens with backgrounds originally void of terrorist leanings at all.
Now, in the wake of the Boston bombings, we're hearing familiar themes once again.
More cameras. Drones galore. Fewer civil liberties.
You know the drill.
Politicians are incredibly sensitive creatures in their ability to sense the public attitude of the moment, especially if it can help them come the next election. Whether or not they act on these signals depends on their perceived risks/benefits analysis.
Thus we see politicos ignoring the will of 90% of the U.S. population in favor of expanded gun background checks, but we also already see these same elected officials now scrambling to jump on the knee-jerk technological surveillance bandwagon, even if a week ago they were taking an essentially contrary stand.
Technological realities are generally not germane to their analytical viewpoints.
We know a lot about domestic video surveillance now, and the overwhelming bulk of evidence suggests that it is relatively useless in stopping terrorist attacks (or even much ordinary crime) and is mainly of use to track down culprits after the damage is already done -- if then.
This proved true even in the case of the Boston bombings, the locale of which must have represented one of the densest concentrations of video and still photography in a single location in history. And even there, despite what you might have heard, highly touted tech such as facial recognition systems apparently played virtually no role at all. The reality is that these systems are only useful under very narrowly defined conditions, the breathless pronouncements of their vested supporters notwithstanding.
And in addition to knee-jerk reactions, we have actual political jerks as well.
Since the capture of the teenage bombing suspect now in hospital -- a naturalized U.S. citizen, by the way -- we've already seen the specter of GOP senators expressing their disdain for the U.S. justice system, demanding that he be declared an "enemy combatant." This despite the fact that based on what we know right now, there is no legal justification for such a determination, and in fact the enemy combatant system -- which could have been better run by "The Three Stooges" -- is tied up in knots of incompetency which make the worst problems in the conventional justice system look trivial by comparison.
And what was unspoken by these U.S. senators was explicitly tweeted by a New York state senator, who apparently graduated from the Air Force Academy without understanding what the Bill of Rights is all about, who blatantly called for "torturing the punk."
To my mind, the sensibilities expressed by these officials are far more dangerous to our civil liberties and way of life than any terrorists.
There are those two words again that so many politicians attempt to ignore: civil liberties.
Understandably pushed into the background during the week was the U.S. House of Representatives passing CISPA legislation that would enable information sharing between government and private industry, that many observers view as rife with the potential for civil liberties abuses.
CISPA is a complex topic. There is no denying that there are actual "cyber" threats. Some of the major Internet firms that had been more openly opposed to previous legislative attempts along these lines have not been presenting formal stances one way or another on CISPA, likely assuming (with some genuine justification from their standpoints) that the current bill is probably the best they could hope to see in the ongoing toxic political atmosphere, and that anything else likely to appear would probably be even worse all around.
In my view, and the view of many others, cyber threats -- while they obviously do exist -- have been vastly overstated by homeland security and military entities, and of course by their affiliated contractor minions in what we might call the "cyberwar-industrial complex" (or my preferred term, the "cyberscare-industrial complex").
Their purpose is clear enough. Sow FUD - Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, in a blatant attempt to accumulate vast resources (both in terms of power and funding) to their own both ostensibly offensive and defensive "cyber" regimes, that will enhance their own organizations, not to mention their post-military employment and financial opportunities.
Cyberfear is perfect for these goals. It's almost impossible to prove that a "cyber attack" (whatever that actually means) came from any particular source, or to defend against such accusations. This makes blaming your current "designated enemy" politically expedient indeed.
There are real world consequences to this approach. Already, we've seen high ranking defense officials claiming that "cyberwar" is more dangerous than conventional terrorism. They impress politicians with carefully rigged demos of imaginary cyber-based infrastructure attacks, and demand ever more money for their "cyber armies."
Until bad publicity got in their way, they were even disgracefully planning to give medals to "cyber troops" (and also to remote drone operators, by the way), who faced absolutely no personal risks compared to our brave troops actually fighting in the trenches.
This is all basically part of a concerted effort to elevate military cyberops to the same level as conventional war -- made all the more explicit by arguments about when a conventional retaliation is justified in response to a cyber attack. And remember, as we just discussed, proving where a cyber attack actually comes from is highly problematic. How handy.
Yet if we pull back a bit and look at the broader picture, we find that the disingenuous nature of these official pronouncements is even more extreme.
The disgraceful fact is that we see officials attempting to equate people being unable to access online banking for a few hours to the situation engendered by a terrorist carrying a suitcase nuke into the heart of a major city.
We see enormously overblown concerns about Internet-based infrastructure attacks, when the reality is that one guy in the desert with conventional explosives could take down a high tension power line and be enormously disruptive, or cut off water to millions by simply blowing away a chunk of a major aqueduct. And so on.
But there's no political "sexiness" -- no major funding or power grab opportunities -- in trying to defend against low tech attacks that can be extremely effective, but nearly impossible to prevent.
Remember, officials shut down the entire Boston area, invoking what could arguably be called a de facto martial law condition, to search for a single teenaged suspect armed only with conventional guns (thanks NRA!) and homemade explosives of a sort that anyone could produce in a few hours after gathering components at the local Walmart.
Which brings us back to CISPA.
At least prior to last week, word from the White House was that President Obama's advisers would urge that he veto CISPA if it reached his desk (after consolidation with any parallel Senate legislation) without significant pro-privacy changes.
That is, this was the word we had prior to the incredibly low tech but still quite effective attacks in Boston, conducted by a pair of youthful brothers who apparently didn't even have an effective escape plan in mind, and despite thousands of video cameras in the immediate vicinity.
Given all that we've reviewed above, I would not be at all surprised to see the president backtrack and now be viewed as being much more accepting of CISPA, bowing to the political pressure that will be actively attempting to conflate even the amateurish attack in Boston -- based on hardware from a hardware store, not from a computer store -- with the exaggerated and self-serving FUD of the cyberscare community. I personally still hope that President Obama holds firm to his originally reported stance in this regard.
More than sixty years ago, Arthur C. Clarke published a short science fiction story called "Superiority" -- that we should very much keep in mind today.
It tells the saga of an interstellar war, where the technologically far superior side, by virtue of diverting so much of its attention and resources to high-tech systems that never really performed as promised by their proponents, were ultimately overwhelmed by their technologically inferior adversaries using comparatively low-tech weapons.
As we consider the aftermath of Boston, and the potential effects of CISPA, it would be unfortunate indeed -- and yes, "highly illogical" -- if we fell into the same trap as the losing side in Clarke's story, all the more so if our civil liberties become collateral damage in the process.
April 07, 2013
France Threatens the Internet: "Censorship or Shackles!"
Regular readers have likely seen me write this so many times that you may be rather sick of it by now: "Public is public."
The concept is simple enough. Pretending that information already public can be somehow clawed back, the genie returned to the bottle, is foolhardy, inane, and subject to various impolite invectives as well.
As we've seen again and again ... and yet again ... attempts to block information that has already been widely seen on the Internet will nearly always fail, as the associated data will have been mirrored in so many locales that efforts at retroactive control will only trigger the dreaded "Streisand Effect" -- drawing far more attention to the information in question than would otherwise have been the case. (The Streisand Effect is named after efforts years ago by entertainer Barbra Streisand to suppress posted photos of her Malibu mansion, which resulted in far greater dissemination of those photos as a presumably unintended consequence).
But there's a corollary to my "public is public" axiom that is much less frequently quoted. Even though attempts at Internet censorship will almost all fail in the end, governments and authorities have the capability to make groups' and individuals' lives extremely uncomfortable, painful, or even terminated -- in the process of attempts at censorship, and equally important, by instilling fear to encourage self-censorship in the first place.
We might expect variations of this behavior from China, North Korea, and other totalitarian states with entrenched censorship mentalities, but now comes a startling example from France, the traditional land of liberté, égalité, fraternité itself.
The details are quite breathtaking for their broader implications.
Last month, the DCRI -- pretty much the French equivalent of the British MI5 internal security organization -- asked Wikipedia to remove an article concerning a French military communications facility, an article apparently based entirely on public sources. This piece had apparently been present on the French Wikipedia version for several years.
When Wikipedia asked for justification to remove the article, DCRI reportedly provided none, and the article stayed available.
Late last week, DCRI summoned a French Wikipedia volunteer with article deletion privileges, who had no prior association or even knowledge of the article, and demanded that he delete it. DCRI apparently threatened to hold him in confinement and prosecute him if he did not immediately comply.
Despite his protests that Wikipedia did not operate in this manner, the volunteer was justifiably terrified, and deleted the article.
The aftermath was easy to predict. The original French version of the article was restored by other Wikipedia editors. That page became the most referenced page in the French Wikipedia version over the last few days. And the page has now been translated into various other languages in other Wikipedia editions.
Streisand Effect fully engaged.
But it would be an enormous mistake to assume -- as many observers are doing -- that this incident was simply the result of "fools" in the French intelligence apparatus who "don't understand how the Web works."
Or to put it another way, it isn't always clear if we're dealing with a bumbling Inspector Clouseau or an incredibly dangerous Maximilien de Robespierre.
The clowns represented by the former need not greatly concern us. But the latter are underestimated at our extreme peril, especially since they may believe in a twisted way that they're actually on the side of the angels.
Around the world, governments are attempting to remake the Web and the greater Internet in their own traditional images.
They have significant resources that can be brought to bear, especially when they succeed in redefining Internet-based freedom of speech as national security risks. Shackles, cells, even firing squads and other lethal methodologies are at their disposal.
Increasingly, we see vague and often highly suspect claims of "cyberwar" being bandied about as a predicate at least for vast diversions of power and money to the "cyberscare-industrial complex" -- and even as potential justifications for cyber or physical retaliations against the designated enemies of the moment.
We see this same class of fear tactics being deployed to justify government scanning of private computing and communications facilities, demands for purpose-built surveillance of encrypted communications systems that actually make these systems more vulnerable to black-hat hacking, and a range of other demands from authorities. Since the big cyber-security bucks are now in play, it's understandable why authorities would prefer to concentrate on theoretical computer-based infrastructure risks, rather than the very real risk of explosives in some empty desert area being used to bring down critical high voltage transmission towers.
With cybersecurity as with so much else, "money is honey."
In context, it's obvious that whether we're talking about overbearing government security services apparently using China and North Korea as their new operating paradigms, or the 21st century version of traditional power and money grabs via fear tactics deluxe, we can't help but return to the fact that governments are trying on various fronts to maintain their old authoritarian models of security and censorship in the new world of ubiquitous Internet communications.
And while today's story involved France and Wikipedia, these are only really placeholders of the moment that can be easily substituted with other countries and other organizations -- or individuals -- going forward.
The best of times, the worst of times. We dare not permit the distraction of seeming clowns in the foreground to blind us from the sharp and shiny falling blades of censorship and surveillance lurking just behind, aimed directly at our figurative (and in some horrific cases perhaps quite literal) naked necks.
April 01, 2013
Deeper Meaning in a Live YouTube April Fools' Gag
As I'm typing this at around 16:45 PDT on April Fools' Day, Google's YouTube is running one of the funniest stunts I've seen in years.
On this currently live video feed we have a pair of presenters reading the titles and uploader descriptions of seemingly rather randomly selected YouTube videos. They're not showing the videos mind you (except for a few being "spotlighted") -- just reading texts from large piles of red and white YouTube cards, in a manner reminiscent of some twisted awards ceremony from an alternative universe.
And in fact, this April Fools' Day event is part of a larger gag (one of many deployed by Google for today -- others included "Gmail Blue," "Google Nose," and more).
In this case our presenters are purportedly in the process of announcing every video ever uploaded to YouTube, in preparation for shutting down YouTube for a decade, while the corpus of existing videos is reviewed to select the "best of them all" -- to be announced in 2023, of course.
What's so very fine about this particular joke is the way the pair of presenters (Donald and Kendra) are playing it all absolutely straight, with barely a smile cracked as they intone out loud video descriptions ranging from touching to ludicrous, all of which appear to be 100% absolutely legit. And of course, the juxtaposition of completely unrelated descriptions only adds to the amusement.
But as this delightful spectacle continues to stream onto a screen to my left at this very moment, I'm thinking that there is a deeper meaning in play.
Those YouTube video descriptions -- from serious to silly, from banal to urbane -- and by definition the videos associated with them -- are a cross-section of real life, in all its stupendous variety and wonder.
Soldiers in battle. Dog eating burger. Bad guitar players. A tribute to a lost friend. Millions and millions and millions of videos, every single one meaning something to whomever took the time to upload them.
Lots of people make money posting on YouTube, but vastly more post simply for the joy of sharing what they care about, and within those piles of cards being read aloud today is the very essence of that meaning -- remarkably clear even absent the actual videos themselves.
I think this is a truth worth noting. And since D and K were just provided with chairs at last, it looks like the show may be good to go for quite a while yet!
Even in the midst of this great April Fools' concept, there is a teachable moment in every video upload, in every video description. Together they're a distillation of so many persons' loves (and hates), desires, fantasies and memories.
That's quite remarkable, really.
And it's no joke.
March 30, 2013
The Washington Post's "What if Google Were Evil" Idiocy
To watch the accelerating fall from grace of the once venerable Washington Post is perhaps to view traditional journalism's quandary in a nutshell.
First, their ombudsman suggested it was unlikely that the Post would implement a paywall, for a variety of sound reasons.
Then the Post fired their ombudsman. Then they announced the availability of notorious "sponsored posts" throughout their pages.
And it's been ever more rapidly downhill for the Post from there, with their now giving credence to serial Google hater Robert Epstein's ramblings.
Epstein -- a psychologist by trade -- is an interesting character. He's a big promoter of the concept that what we all really need is governments regulating search engines and search results. You know, the same governments that are cracking down on free speech around the world and extending surveillance into every aspect of our lives -- including right here in the USA. Governments in some cases that demand search results censorship when those results aren't favorable to their rulers. Governments promoting Stalinist and Orwellian "let's blot out history!" concepts like the hideous "right to be forgotten."
Those governments. Take a look, they're all around us, pretty much getting worse every day. Epstein wants them in control of our information as well.
Robert Epstein's hatred of Google appears to date back to when he became upset that Google search results were tagging his website as possibly being contaminated with malware -- because, well, ya' know, uh, they indeed were so contaminated.
Epstein apparently became concerned that Google was able to warn people away from sites that might ruin computers, seemingly based on his bizarre reasoning that helping to protect people's systems was just too much power.
Now the Post is providing real estate to Epstein's latest tirades, his theory that if Google suddenly turned evil, they might be able to theoretically alter the outcomes of close elections.
Ah, the magic "if." We're in big trouble "if" President Obama goes mad and launches a nuclear strike. We're up the creek if our brakes fail on the freeway at 70 miles per hour, or if our dogs suddenly turn on us and rip out our throats.
I'm reminded of a wonderful old episode of the original 1964 series The Outer Limits, about a humanoid robot falsely accused of murdering his creator.
The robot -- Adam -- is intelligent, knowledgeable, gentle, and with good will toward all. But in an attempt to prove he's a killer -- to try demonstrate an "if" and that it's theoretically possible for the robot to be dangerous -- the government modifies his circuitry to purposely trigger a violent outburst.
In the end, as he's being escorted away calmly to be dismantled, he sees a little girl about to be hit by a truck, and cheats the executioner by allowing himself to be crushed in the process of saving the child.
Web firms like Google and most others, who exist by virtue of providing services that users value in an environment where competition is usually just a click away, have every reason to want search results and other information to be as useful and honest as possible.
For anyone to postulate such firms secretly morphing into the functional equivalent of James Bond super villains is nonsensical, and to argue that government regulation of search results and information availability would be anything other than a disaster is at the very least ignorant, and perhaps purposely deceptive.
On the other hand, we already know that governments around the world seem hell-bent on devaluing and even crushing civil liberties, while increasingly tightly controlling information for their own benefits. The last thing we need is government controls over the firms that have become our gateways to the very knowledge helping to empower us to make our own decisions about our lives and our world.
All the wacky "ifs" that anyone can imagine aren't going to convince us otherwise.
"If" you get my drift.
March 28, 2013
Tax Love, Not Email!
When the caller ID on my private line lit with a ridiculously long row of sixes, I knew what was up. It had to be Ziggy Morbius calling -- one of the creepier people to cross my path over the years. Thankfully, I've never actually met him, but conversations with him are something between amusing and terrifying, so I'd always taken his calls.
I took another sip of Diet Coke, and went off-hook.
"Ziggy. I know your number. Well, I haven't heard from you in ages," I said.
"Sorry about that, Lauren. Just got of the slammer. You don't want to know the details," said Ziggy.
"You're right about that. So Zig, what's on your mind?"
"Have you heard about that weird Wozniak guy?" asked Ziggy.
"You mean Steve? Apple co-founder Wozniak?"
"No, no, not that weird Wozniak. The email tax Wozniak!"
"Oh. Yeah, I think I have. Berkeley City Council or something, right? Retired nuke scientist or some such?" I asked.
"That's the one! He wants to tax email. Then the money could be used to prop up the USPS or pay for guns and napalm and bombs and such, or whatever."
"It's not going to happen Zig," I said. "Remember the old email tax rumors floating around the net for years? The idea was insane then and it's insane now. Completely impractical. Idiotic. Dumb. You get the concept."
"I sorta liked it," said Ziggy. "After that Berkeley guy brought it up, I saw them on FOX News talking about how great it would be as a way to stop spam, and then I saw a whole bunch of those pundit types on CNN saying it was wonderful, too. And some guy from the L.A. Times supported it, and ..."
"Zig. Get a hold of yourself. First, you shouldn't watch FOX News. It will rot your, uh, mind. As for the email tax ... It's not going to happen. There's no practical way to implement it, or enforce it. Email is really just files being moved from site to site. There are a virtually endless number of ways to transfer files. Oh sure, you could force ISPs to charge customers for accepting some email, just like you could tax people for every byte they use on the Net. If you want to destroy the goose that laid the golden egg, there's a plan for you. I don't want to get technical about this now, but you won't stop people from finding other ways to send email, spammers will find ways to evade any systems you do set up, and honest folks with large information mailing lists that don't make any money would be crushed."
"OK OK, I get it. I get it. So here's my alternative plan. How about if the government taxes love? You know, sex?" asked Ziggy.
"I mean it Lauren. What if they could collect something for every time people, you know, do it?"
"Uh. Well, Zig ... it seems to me that this is basically the same problem as taxing email. I mean, there are lots of ways to, uh, do it. Lots of places where it can be done. I just don't see it, Ziggy," I said.
"So what are you saying, Lauren? Taxing activities that are extremely fungible like email and sex just isn't practical?"
"Where'd you learn the word 'fungible' Ziggy? That's not quite the term I'd use for this, but yeah, you're on the beam."
"Well, I was just trying to be helpful," said Ziggy."
"Hey Zig, if I had to choose between an email tax and a sex tax, I'd go for the sex tax before you could finish asking the question. An email tax would cost me a fortune. At a penny an outgoing message, I figure it could easily be a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year. No way I could afford that! A sex tax ... well, these days, one hell of a lot less. But neither is desirable, reasonable, nor practical. Period. Full stop. That's just the way it is," I said. "But I always appreciate your, uh, novel viewpoints on important issues."
"OK kid. I'll keep thinking about this stuff. And Lauren, you should try get out more, I mean, since there's no sex tax yet."
"As always Zig, you're a veritable wellspring of wisdom. Try to stay out of trouble," I said.
"You too," said Ziggy.
Ziggy hung up. I hung up. I returned to my Diet Coke.
Just another day with the Net.