INT. - BRIDGE OF THE U.S.S. ENTERPRISE
LIEUTENANT COMMANDER SPOCK
LIEUTENANT COMMANDER SCOTT
LIEUTENANT COMMANDER McCOY
YEOMAN JANICE RAND
INT. - SPOCK'S CABIN
Humans! Totally illogical.
- - -
In Missouri, teachers and others are up in arms over a law that would ban most contacts between teachers and students through social media, not only via systems like Facebook, but even apparently mechanisms such as Google Docs.
In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed censoring or cutting off BlackBerry and other social media systems based on the misguided and false assumption that this would prevent planning and communications by potential rioters or other "undesirable" persons.
And back here in the U.S., BART shut down parts of the cell phone network, in an attempt to block communications in advance of a legal protest that never took place, though we know full well from history that protests -- even of enormous scope -- do not require high technology to be organized and deployed.
Around the world, including here in the U.S., governments are demanding unencrypted access to supposedly "secure" communications systems.
The common thread is very clear. Governments are increasingly terrified of the communications abilities that Internet and other technologies have provided their citizenry and other residents.
While usually careful to express their concerns in the context of seemingly laudable motives like fighting crime or terrorism, in reality these governments have revealed the distrust and contempt with which they view their populations at large.
This is by no means a new phenomenon.
Throughout human history, governments and many leaders have cast a jaundiced eye on virtually every new technological development that enabled communications, particularly if that technology made it easier for direct person-to-person messages to be exchanged outside the view of government services and minders.
These government efforts to suppress and control communications have virtually all failed in the end, though a great deal of damage has been done to individuals and groups in the process.
At one time, even the ability to read and write was considered too dangerous a skill set for the commoners. The invention of the printing press threw government and churches alike into convulsions of apprehension.
And now "social media" is the new scapegoat, the whipping boy, the technological designated evil that short-sighted politicians of both major parties, and their various administrative minions and supporters, are demanding be monitored, leashed, and controlled.
In reality of course, it's not the technology that these persons wish to leash -- it's ordinary people. It's you and me and the vastness of other law-abiding persons who have become the targets of the 21st century law enforcement mantra: "Screw the Bill of Rights -- treat everybody like a suspect, all the time."
The broad implications of this "guilty until proven innocent" mindset are all around us now. They're at the heart of the newly revealed alliance between CIA and the New York City Police Department to monitor the activities of innocent citizens, using surveillance techniques that would have seemed comfortably familiar to the old East German Stasi secret police.
They're seen in the massive government-mandated Internet data retention demanded by "The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011" -- now moving rapidly through Congress, and disingenuously titled to suggest it only applies to child abuse, when in reality its true reach would broadly encompass all manner of Internet access activities.
Governments seem to increasingly no longer feel that it's necessary or desirable to have "probable cause" or court orders before spying on individuals, tracking their movements via hidden GPS units, building dossiers, or even disrupting communications. Constitutional guarantees are more and more viewed by our leaders as quaint artifacts of the past, to be ignored today merely as annoying inconveniences.
The innocent are now being treated largely as potential "future criminals" -- and so subject to many of the same sorts of surveillance and other law enforcement techniques that in the past were generally limited to specific suspects of specific crimes.
To the extent that these activities for now appear to be mostly aimed at persons with skin colors or religions different from us, it becomes easier to "go with the flow" of this new law enforcement mentality, to not make waves, to be quiet, to be sheep.
But the same techniques used today against one group can be easily repurposed for others. Government ordered records of users' Internet activities will affect us all, and the infrastructures created to support these surveillance-related systems may be be extremely long-lived.
When governments no longer trust the people, when officials make the mental and physical leaps to targeting vast numbers of innocent persons in the manner of criminal suspects of yesteryear, we have embarked on a road that leads to a very dark place indeed.
Today, social media is the crosshairs. Governments certainly are enthusiastic about using social media for their own investigatory and enforcement purposes, but they appear to be desperately seeking ways to control and limit the ability of ordinary persons to communicate privately and securely on these systems, or to use them at all in some cases.
This is hypocrisy of the highest order. It is a serious risk to innocent individuals being targeted by its adherents today.
Unchallenged, tomorrow it will be a serious risk to us all.
As requested by readers who couldn't hear the show, I've posted a couple of MP3 audio clips from my guesting back on "Coast to Coast AM" Radio last night, discussing a variety of technology topics with host George Noory.
BART Shutting Down Cell Phone Services
As always, your questions, thoughts, or comments are much appreciated. Thanks.
Controversy continues to rage over the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District's unilateral decision to follow in the footsteps of Egypt's now fallen dictator Hosni Mubarak, by cutting off cell phone services in an attempt to quell protests (in BART's case, a protest that didn't actually occur).
The "Anonymous" group has today already hacked BART's external Web sites in response, and more protests triggered by BART's actions may be forthcoming.
Is comparing Mubarak and BART unfair? Over the top? After all, various U.S. observers have been supporting BART's decision, saying that riders really didn't need cell service at those locations, didn't have it in those locales a relatively few years ago, and have suggested that pretty much anything was acceptable in the name of proactively preserving "public safety" -- even in the face of nonexistent protesters.
And since luckily it appears that no critical phone calls ("Sorry, I can't reach the doctor's cell phone!") were blocked as a result of BART's action, it's no harm, no foul, right?
Wrong. Dead wrong.
In fact, BART's actions were a betrayal of the public trust, via the arbitrary interruption of services that patrons had come to expect, just as water and power can't be arbitrarily removed via the logic that "years ago you wouldn't have had it at all!"
BART may have been the local "custodian" of the cell services in question, but these facilities were actually apparently operated by the cellular carriers themselves.
Let's see how BART announced the expansion of cellular services just a few years ago:
"Underground cellphone coverage on BART expands: Whatever you think of cellphones on BART -- love 'em to call for that ride at the station, hate 'em when people are loud and rude -- cell coverage for underground stations and trackways is expanding ... In 2009, the cellular carriers plan to extend service through the Transbay Tube and into the downtown Oakland stations."
Pretty clearly, the expansion was in the hands of the carriers, not BART. Even more interestingly, BART appears to be noting that some people may not like having cell service along the route -- but they're going to have to live with it anyway. Free speech and all that, right?
Unless you're BART itself.
But BART has now invoked the public safety defense -- even though no protest was in progress and no emergency was currently transpiring.
"Public safety" prohibitions on communications can be morphed into a wide variety of free speech violations with a minimum of effort. We can be sure that the official reason for the cutoff of telecom services during the recent Egyptian uprising -- a cutoff that was roundly condemned by government leaders here in the U.S. and around the world -- was justified by Egyptian officials on "public safety" grounds, not political expediencies.
But there's a fundamental fallacy behind the reasoning of BART officials, and other Western leaders, such as UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who is now calling for the censoring of social media to prevent uprisings -- a stance being applauded by China!
It just won't work. And history tells us why.
Since we've seen an increase in protests being organized via high-tech methods such as the Internet and cell phones, officials have fallen into the trap of assuming that the blocking, censoring, or removal of those technologies will prevent large scale protests (and sometimes associated violence) from occurring.
But tell that to the crowds protesting the Vietnam war at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Or the masses of humanity gathered in revolutionary Russia in 1917. Or the innumerable other protests and gatherings -- many political, often enormous, not infrequently violent -- that have occurred here in the U.S. and around the world stretching back to the dawn of the 20th century and earlier.
I guarantee you this much -- prior to around 1977 or so in this country, not one single individual attending any of those protests was organized through the use of a cell phone. Go back far enough, and even ordinary landline phone availability would have been rare or nonexistent.
Yes, cell phones today help people organize in all sorts of ways. But they are not necessary prerequisites to protests (peaceful or not). Take away people's cell phone service, and if they want to protest they can still find ways to organize and deploy, just as they did before cell phones and the Internet were developed.
So this really seems to be fairly simple overall. Cutting off cell phone services won't stop people from protesting, may inflame their passions even more, and runs the risk of collateral damage to innocent parties who were depending on those services being available for a range of legitimate purposes.
But hey, if officials still want to give cell phone censorship a try, that's up to them.
It worked out just great for Mubarak. He's currently on trial for his life, from inside a steel cage.
Perhaps would-be U.S. telecom censors will have better luck.
BART officials in the San Francisco Bay Area cut off cell phone service in what they described as an attempt to prevent a public protest.
Oddly enough, the U.S. federal government has reportedly deployed small, portable cellular/Internet units to help ensure that protesters can successfully communicate in the face of government crackdowns in other parts of the world.
This "leaked phone call" explores the irony of the BART situation.
Heard Somewhere Inside the Beltway: BART vs. Free Speech
In his 1971 science fiction novel The Futurological Congress, author Stanislaw Lem takes a dark look at the premise that most of what we see around us -- even the seemingly obvious -- is actually illusionary to some extent, and that even many people who believe that they know they underlying truths are themselves being fooled by deeper layers of reality's onion.
In the worlds of finance and high technology, there is a great deal of truth to this interpretation, and we need only look to the warped and largely destructive world of patents to realize how far we've gone astray.
Patents and related concepts have a long history, but this 1844 quote from a report to the French Chamber of Deputies in the debates preceding adoption of the French Patent Law of 1844 is noteworthy:
"Every useful discovery is, in to Kant's words 'the presentation of a service rendered to Society'. It is, therefore, just that he who has rendered this service should be compensated by Society that received it. This is an equitable result, a veritable contract or exchange that operates between the authors of a new discovery and Society. The former supply the noble products of their intelligence and Society grants to them in return the advantages of an exclusive exploitation of their discovery for a limited period."
The emphasis on "service rendered to Society" is particularly striking.
Fast forward to 2011, and the concept of "serving society" seems to have been painfully marginalized as a prime mover in the titanic patent battles and associated atrocities that are increasingly a millstone around the necks of society and consumers -- creating mainly enormous monetary and lost opportunity costs.
This sorry situation didn't appear overnight. Back in 2002, in Stop the Patent Process Madness, I briefly described the rise of stealth and protective patents, and how the enormous expansion of both software and business method patents has further distorted the picture.
Since then, I would argue that matters have gotten far worse, with patents now being explicitly wielded as weapons of financial destruction, rather than as the instruments of innovation that were originally intended to serve society.
The current very public arguing between Microsoft and Google regarding massively expensive "bundles" of patents purportedly associated with smartphone systems (and Android in particular) -- well explained and analyzed on Groklaw -- is a notable current example.
Leaving aside Microsoft's flagrant and disingenuous attempt at mischaracterizing the situation, including their obnoxious, out of context release of an email from Google that Microsoft clearly hoped would cast false aspersions on Google's motivations, the overall landscape related to high technology patents is nothing short of insane.
To use the vernacular, a "simple" DVD player involves a lot of patents. A typical PC invokes an amazingly large range of patents. And a modern smartphone can trigger a stupefyingly gigantic mountain of patents -- perhaps as many as a quarter of a million.
Notably (and especially in the smartphone case), the technical term for most of these patents is "bull" -- they shouldn't really have been granted in the first place.
But we've reached a point now where even good players feel obligated to file patents left and right in order not only to protect themselves from malevolent patent sharks, but also to try preserve openness for future developers.
If core Internet technologies had been patented decades ago in the manner that tech is patented today, I would assert that the Net we'd have now would be an enormously more closed and restricted environment -- if the Internet had even managed to really continue developing at all under such conditions.
Average consumers are largely unaware of how grossly these "layers" of the patent system not only effectively create a "tax" on the technology that they purchase, but also create such a fear of litigation that many creative individuals choose not to proceed with developing products or services that otherwise could have benefited society greatly.
There is an imperfect -- but still fairly horrifying -- analogy between the way "bundles" of patents can be treated by the unscrupulous as anticompetitive weapons, similar in some respects to how bundles of subprime mortgages were manipulated in manners that helped lead to our recent economic collapse.
Another relevant example is ICANN's atrocious "gold rush" scheme for massive generic top-level domains expansion.
In all of these cases -- patents, mortgages, domains -- the original, society-serving functional purposes of these concepts have been largely lost in the rush to treat the buying and selling of these "instrumentalities" (or related derivatives) as mechanisms mainly of financial gain for a relative few, but with society at large losing enormously as a result.
Peeling the onion down another layer, I believe that this is symptomatic of a deeper failing, an increasing tendency to value not the creation of new products and services that benefit society and consumers generally, but rather the manipulation of the systems themselves by the unscrupulous to serve greed -- forcing even the benevolent players into the game on a purely defensive basis.
A practical path out from this nightmare is not entirely clear. To call Congress dysfunctional these days is to be charitable beyond measure.
At the very least, as individuals we can try to stay informed regarding the reality of these situations -- the inner layers of the onion.
This will not only help us to see through ignoble tactics such as those employed by Microsoft in the current smartphone patents controversy, but more generally enable us to more accurately discern where many other matters of concern actually stand, and what society should be demanding from our legislators, leaders, the financial community, and major industries in general.
In Lem's Futurological Congress, most of the population lived in a carefully conceived, falsified representation of reality.
We need not follow their example.
You probably already know how I feel about ICANN's plan for massive expansion of generic top-level domains (gTLDs), that they have recently approved and are pushing forward aggressively.
Litigation relating to this scheme has long been predicted, and the likelihood of such action directed at the fundamental flaws of the entire concept, not just over who gets to operate or reside in a particular gTLD, has just increased enormously.
The Association of National Advertisers (ANA), "representing in excess of 10,000 brands that annually collectively spend over $250 billion in marketing, communications, and advertising," has sent a blistering letter to ICANN making very clear that the "big guns" are now in play.
I strongly recommend that everyone interested in this area take the time to read the letter in its entirety [Google Docs]. (I've received some reports of persons have trouble displaying the letter directly from the ANA site -- I've uploaded the Google Docs representation after local post-processing that should make it viewable for everyone.)
The letter is frankly a joy to peruse. Perhaps "joy" doesn't seem like the right term, but the letter is so comprehensive, and so clearly spells out in great detail the multitude of problems with ICANN's gTLD scheme, that it really is required reading.
And while the letter doesn't come right out and say that legal action is in the offing, ANA makes very, very clear that they do not intend to site idly by and watch ICANN's gTLD "gold rush" reach fruition without a serious battle indeed.
This is going to be extremely interesting.
I'm in the process of catching up on a number of significant stories I was unable to post over the last few days. Please bear with me as I drain the queue as rapidly as possible.
New Scientist reported yesterday regarding an array of ISPs who are accused of hijacking unencrypted subscriber Internet traffic to redirect search queries -- triggering a class action lawsuit and undoubtedly other reactive measures as well.
New Scientist didn't call this wiretapping -- but I will. That's what I consider such abuse of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) mechanisms to be when applied to unencrypted Internet connections in these contexts.
Regular readers know that I've been talking about this area of concern for years. Rather than rerun the discussion today, here's a listing of a few postings that reflect on related issues, all from my blog:
ISP Wiretapping: FCC, FTC, and Congress Need to Act Now! (13 May 2008)
And so on ...