August 31, 2007

The White House's "Secret" E-Mail Contractor

Greetings. This one is fairly impressive, even for the current White House occupants. As you may know, it appears that millions (yes, reportedly millions) of administration e-mails -- required by law to be archived -- have supposedly "vanished" into thin air. Never mind that backing up e-mail is hardly rocket science (or even complicated computer science).

What's more, the White House is so far refusing to tell Congress the name of the contract firm who presumably should receive the blame for this gaffe -- assuming it really was just an, uh, "simple" archiving problem, and not a purposeful cleansing operation that would make Nixon's tape gap pale in comparison.

Why won't the administration identify the brilliant technical minds behind this e-mail error extravaganza?

On that point we can all use our imaginations, but one thing's for sure. If most ordinary citizens tried such stunts regarding any materials that they were required by law to provide the authorities, they'd likely be crucified so fast that they'd barely have time to hear the shackles snapping closed and the cell doors slamming shut.

The White House credo appears to be Les Miserables-style "justice" for the "little people" -- but the ruling class lives high on the pie in the sky, by different rules than you and I.

But then again, we expected no less from these guys, and in that respect we're never disappointed.


Posted by Lauren at 02:33 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 29, 2007

Even the Navy Can't Censor the Internet

Greetings. I frequently make the assertion that it's impossible to successfully censor the Internet by trying to remove materials that have already been posted publicly after they've attracted attention. What's published is published, what's done is done. The genie won't just refuse to go back into the bottle, he'll stick his tongue out at you as well -- or worse.

You may recall the international brouhaha a couple of weeks ago over the Navy pulling from YouTube all copies of an (originally relatively obscure -- now infamous) amateur music video posted by a user named "PUMPIT01" and produced on the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan (CVN76), as described in this story among many others.

The video in question ("Women of CVN76") has been variously described as being removed due to security violations (brief shots of utterly innocuous reactor-related areas), "inappropriate use of safety equipment," and other explanations.

The real reason for the Navy's "reaction" is clearly just plain old ordinary embarrassment, especially since the ship's CO has a cameo role in the amusing production.

But my point here isn't to post a video review, but rather to emphasize that for all the noise about deleting the video, it of course remains easily available with but a minimum amount of effort.

You may feel that the inability to effectively "recall" posted materials is a blow for freedom, or to the contrary an information control disaster. But either way, it's a fact -- a reality that we can't escape. And perhaps the sooner we come to terms with this truth, the less time we'll be wasting at shadow boxing with useless Internet censorship attempts. There are far better ways that we can be spending our time.

Excuse me? Oh, where's the video? Like I said, finding a copy is actually quite simple.

Example: For the sake of the argument, let's say that you did a Google Search right now for the straightforward query of:

cvn-76 women pumpit01 "click here"

No magic words. No secret codes. Just pretty obvious stuff from the news stories about the video, plus a little common search sense. And while any given search results are often fairly ephemeral, and any particular copy of material found at any given time may still be removed, well, the Internet is a big place, and the Lords of Censorship remain essentially impotent, for better or worse, indeed.


Posted by Lauren at 10:25 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

FBI's Wiretapping Behemoth Revealed

Greetings. Considerable details regarding the FBI's vast domestic wiretapping infrastructure -- "DCSNet" -- have now been revealed in released documents. Please see this story for some details and related links.

Now partially exposed is a real-time telecommunications spying system that would have put Stalin's phone cops and the East German Stasi to shame (or at the very least set them drooling with envy). The DCSNet system appears to be as pervasive and potentially subject to abuse as many observers had feared as a worst-case scenario.

I don't throw around the term "police state" lightly. But given the recent information regarding FBI abuse of National Security Letters, other trust-eroding revelations relating to inappropriate use of "anti-terrorism" powers, and the range of technological security and other shortcomings that appear to exist in this embedded wiretapping system, we appear to be living in something very much approximating what could be a textbook definition of a "telecom police state" at this time. That is, when basic communications facilities become purpose-built to enable government monitoring, the very concept of telecommunications privacy for innocent citizens rapidly becomes moot.

Of particular irony is the FBI's assertion that the spying system has never been breached by outsiders -- as far as the FBI knows, that is. But of course, it's the real pro who penetrates such systems without revealing their presence, and the only sure protection from that class of attack is to not deeply compromise telecommunications systems with such incredibly intrusive surveillance capabilities in the first place.

In Theodore J. Flicker's brilliant, masterpiece 1967 film The President's Analyst, the following exchange takes place:

Russian Spy: "Are you trying to tell me that every phone in the country is tapped?"

American Spy: "That's what's in my head."

Russian Spy: "But Don, this is America, not Russia!"

I've noted this dialogue in my writings a number of times over the years. But even I never fully realized the extent to which Flicker had actually created more of a prescient documentary, rather than merely a dark satire.

"This is a recording."


Posted by Lauren at 05:32 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 28, 2007

Can Google "Street View" Steal Your Soul?

Greetings. Various ancient civilizations, and a surprising number of people in contemporary cultures, have believed that images possess the power to steal one's soul, to imprison it in paint, emulsion, or (in today's terms) image data.

It's generally acknowledged by the scientific community that cameras do not have any direct soul-stealing power (with the possible exception of the 1960s' infamous Polaroid "Swinger" camera).

Yet, I'm increasingly fielding e-mail and phone calls from persons who seem to believe that photographs taken in public can do them serious damage, and both legislatures and courts are moving to impose limits on previously public photos. These range from preventing people from taking photographs or videos of bridges and highways to ordering a professed pedophile not to take photos of children (despite his lack of any criminal record and claims not to act on his impulses). There are many other examples between these two data points, as well.

Some of this flaring up of photography concerns was triggered by 9/11 ("Who would take photos of bridges except potential terrorists?" is the implicit assumption). Lately, more negative reaction appears to have been triggered by Google Maps "Street View," which while not the first street-level Internet photo application, is in my opinion the slickest and best implemented -- and it's those very qualities that seems to freak many people out totally. I'm on record as not seeing significant privacy problems with the current Street View implementation, and I believe that restrictions on public photography can do serious harm to public safety. However, there are those in the privacy and broader Internet community who strongly disagree with me on this issue, pointing for example to the recent case of a teacher being humiliated by an anonymous, "dishonestly" edited YouTube video, among many other examples (a particularly egregious example to be sure, but perhaps more specifically related to YouTube editorial policies -- an important topic in and of itself -- rather than broader public photography issues).

It can be argued that the legal concepts we have of privacy and any abilities to "control one's image" (or lack of such abilities) have been outdated by the rise of instant Internet distribution of photos, YouTube, and the like, where perceived "damage" can be done almost immediately upon an item being posted, and even later removal of such materials from their original distribution point does little to stem their continuing flow around the Net. This is an extremely difficult problem, where "simple" solutions are likely to be the least palatable in the long run.

Some observers argue that celebrities already have considerable means to control uses of their images, and that anti-paparazzi laws in some locales are also largely aimed at helping that same demographic, rather than ordinary folks.

I personally remain highly dubious regarding how significant new photographic "controls" can be imposed without triggering massively unwarranted restrictions and potentially very dangerous collateral damage. I really don't like the idea of public photographic restrictions except perhaps in extremely narrow and rare circumstances. But, given that judges and legislators are already moving toward broader controls, intellectual honesty requires that we ask the related key questions.

The questions: Is it desirable -- and practical -- to impose relatively broad restrictions on public still or motion photography of individuals, property, or other locations, and/or the posting of such imagery on the Internet or in other venues? If you're in favor of such restrictions, how far would you go? How would you impose and monitor such restrictions? How would you propose that the balance between the public's "right to know" and private concerns be suitably balanced? Would such restrictions be starting us down a slippery slope toward making virtually all public photography illegal, with potentially unpredictable consequences? Or, do you have a formula that you believe could impose your desired restrictions without such damage?

I'd be very interested in your responses and discussion, particularly over in the PFIR Forums Google Maps discussion area.

Thanks very much.


Posted by Lauren at 07:38 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 25, 2007

Implications of Microsoft's WGA Breakdown

Greetings. For those of us who have long been concerned about Microsoft's increasingly aggressive use of anti-piracy technologies, the new problems with WGA (which have reportedly now been fixed, but some customers will have to jump through a few hoops to clean up the resulting mess on their systems) should be yet another big, waving, red flag.

There will no doubt be much more to say when additional details are known, but this is an extremely important issue that cuts to the heart of intrusive anti-piracy and DRM technologies.


Posted by Lauren at 03:12 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Cable Industry Responds Regarding HD TiVo Incompatibilities

Greetings. You'll recall a few days ago I reviewed the situation concerning incompatibilities between the new High Definition TiVo ("TiVo HD") and the Switched Digital Video (SDV) systems being rapidly deployed by cable systems.

That was last Wednesday. The following day, that blog item appeared on Slashdot and was as a result very widely referenced and discussed. So much for Thursday.

Now comes word that the next day (yesterday), the cable industry trade association (NCTA - National Cable & Telecommunications Association) made a filing with the FCC offering to develop a workaround for the problem.

As might be expected, NCTA is continuing to push the "OpenCable Application Platform" (OCAP) system that the Consumer Electronics Association has found to be unacceptable.

However, NCTA reportedly says in their new FCC filing that they are now willing to develop a "tuning resolver" to work around the problem for existing devices like the new TiVo. This device would be a USB "dongle" to handle SDV tuning (the second of the probable options that I mentioned in my original blog item, as it happens).

While this is obviously a welcome development, two obvious questions are "When?" and "How much will it cost?"

Certainly cost is important. And if the device takes too long to appear, the associated host devices might already be obsolete!

Still, a busy three days, and no doubt the timing of the NCTA filing vs. all of the Slashdot attention to the issue was just an amusing coincidence.


Posted by Lauren at 02:04 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 24, 2007

California Budget Obscenity

Greetings. Governor Arnold made it back into town from his global jaunts to sign the (late as usual, thanks to the GOP) California state budget. The result should make everybody involved ashamed of themselves, if those folks ever felt any shame.

It's a textbook case of further shafting people who are already down.

For example, while a widely lauded program for the homeless mentally ill (costing $55 million) was eliminated from the budget, the happy crew at the state legislature and a smiling Arnold managed to preserve a $45 million sales tax exemption for folks buying yachts, planes, and the like. Yeah, that's priorities in action!

Our state "leaders" are all gung-ho when it comes to ordering us not to drive with handheld cell phones (even though studies show that permitted hands-free phones are equally distracting), or dictating what sorts of light bulbs we should be allowed to use in our homes.

But when it comes to people who really need help, well, who gives more in campaign contributions -- the mentally ill homeless or yacht owners?

If the U.S. Supreme Court ever needs to find a workable definition for "obscenity" again, this budget would fit the bill very nicely.


Posted by Lauren at 05:14 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 22, 2007

Important Warning Regarding New HD TiVo and Cable System Incompatibilities

Greetings. You may have seen much (deserved) hoopla regarding the new relatively low-priced HD TiVo, that uses CableCARD technology to allow a direct interface between digital cable systems and the TiVo unit.

While it is generally understood that the current generation of these devices (this may well change within a year or two) cannot access two-way cable services such as Pay Per View (PPV) or Video On Demand (VOD), many potential buyers of this TiVo product may not be aware of concerns regarding the use of Switched Digital Video (SDV) on an increasing number of cable systems.

Briefly, SDV technology -- which is being aggressively deployed by Time Warner Cable and also by many other large and small systems -- requires two-way communications with the cable company servers to allow the customer to access all of the available channels. Without this capability, those channels on a cable system being managed via SDV would typically be inaccessible to the associated devices.

Since existing third-party CableCARD host devices of types including the new HD TiVo don't currently support the necessary two-way operations, users of these devices (including the new TiVo) could find themselves unable to watch or record channels of interest (the exact set of which will vary from system to system over time).

While there are continuing statements that the cable companies and TiVo are working on some sort of solution to this problem (keep in mind that CableCARD compatibility is an FCC mandate), no specifics on any possible "fix" or time frame for such a fix have been forthcoming.

There indeed are ways that the problem could be worked around. For example, signaling over the Internet could be used (newer TiVos are Internet compatible). Or, some sort of external device associated with one of the TiVo's various interfaces could be employed to communicate back to the cable system servers.

However, until there are more details available, such workarounds appear to be rather speculative right now. On the other hand, deployment of SDV and the problems it could cause for CableCARD TiVo users are very real and in some cases immediate.

I'm definitely not saying that you absolutely shouldn't buy the new HD TiVo -- it's a very nice box. But be warned that these potentially serious issues do exist at this time.


Additional Notes (August 23, 2007): There is considerable confusion regarding CableCARDS. My understanding is that both CableCARD 1 and CableCARD 2 specifications actually support bidirectional communications. The more recent CableCARD 2 specs also have led to the first actual implementations of the "M-Card" (which can decode multiple video streams). See, for example, this discussion.

The stumbling blocks to the required two-way communications for supporting SDV natively on TiVo devices apparently have been cable company demands that certain of their (cable company) control software be running on the associated TiVo units themselves (something that TiVo has been unenthusiastic to permit), and that the hardware must also have the necessary bidirectional support functionality internally (and be appropriately enabled).

So, it's quite a mess right now, which is a shame, since the new HD TiVo really is an impressive piece of technology.


Blog Update (August 25, 2007): Cable Industry Responds Regarding HD TiVo Incompatibilities

Posted by Lauren at 10:32 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

AT&T Mobility to Charge For Detailed Paper Bills

Greetings. The spin on this story, is that long iPhone bills are speeding AT&T Mobility's reportedly already planned moves to charge for other than summary paper bills.

The details (no pun intended) aren't all completely clear, but this does make sense at least for the data portion of the bills, for people with flat rate data plans. Currently the bills show each EDGE/3G connection, and that really can pile up.

However, any move to charge for detailed billing on non-flat data plans, or for the detail on the voice call component of the bills (since most of us don't have flat rate voice plans) should be considered problematic. This same concern would seem to also apply to conventional landline phone service bills with flat vs. non-flat rate calling plans as well.

On non-flat rate plans, call or data detail can be important to understand and plan your usage characteristics. While I agree that for many people online access to this detail information (which I assume AT&T intends to continue providing for free) provides a useful alternative to paper bill details. However, there are many persons who are wireless or landline phone users who are not comfortable on the Web (or even don't use the Web at all).

I suggest that it would be unfair to that set of users to charge them a premium for a detailed paper bill, at least in terms of non-flat rate components.


Posted by Lauren at 08:24 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 20, 2007

New Study Refutes Assumed Link Between Cell Phone Use and Auto Accidents

Greetings. As regular readers of my missives may know, I've long been a critic of the conventional wisdom that the anti-cell phone laws becoming increasingly common (including one here in California set to take effect around a year from now) will reduce auto accidents -- the science and statistics just never appeared to be there to support the types of legislation passed, as far as I'm concerned.

Now, a new U.C. Berkeley study appears to confirm that accident rates simply have not behaved in a way that would validate the views of those pushing these cell phone laws that affect the general population.

Laws passed on the basis of gut feelings, rather than hard facts, are often the ones that make the least sense and do the least good.


Posted by Lauren at 03:40 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 18, 2007

More Wikipedia "Gotcha" Silliness

Greetings. My concerns regarding the Wikipedia operational model are fairly well known, e.g. "Wikipedia and Responsibility".

So it was with considerable interest that I've noted the controversy regarding a 24-year-old self-described "disruptive technologist," and his tool to more easily track the origin of Wikipedia changes (New York Times: "Lifting Corporate Fingerprints From the Editing of Wikipedia".

But even the title of that article tends to belie the underlying nature of a real problem -- the lack of accountability for most of what's written or edited in Wikipedia. The "Corporate Fingerprints" bit is cute -- but what about all of the other fingerprints smeared through virtually every byte of the Wikipedia database?

Apparently it's one thing to snicker about corporate folks who want to correct what they perceive as errors (or, indeed, put their own positive spin on "the facts.") But there seems to be little interest in figuring out who purposely defaces pages, plants false or defaming information in the first place, or for that matter is responsible for the more mundane, probably factual minutiae, even just for the sake of establishing authenticity or expertise.

Wikipedia seems to be turning into a gigantic "gotcha" machine -- increasingly contaminated like a chunk of "Silly Putty" that's been used once too often to pick up comic strip images.

The single best thing that Wikipedia could do to lend itself genuine credibility would be to require that contributers identify themselves -- by name, not by handles or childish aliases. Or, as an alternative, at the very least clearly indicate "in-line" when unauthenticated text dominates an entry.

Ironically, our disruptive technologist's tracing mechanism will probably have ever less value moving forward from today. While it will continue to be useful for retrospective analysis up to this point in time, we can be sure that more and more of the primarily targeted corporate Wikipedia editors will learn their lesson.

That lesson being, if you're going to edit your entry on Wikipedia, be sure to do it through a public proxy or generic ISP account, not through your corporate network.

So moving forward, we'll probably have even less meaningful transparency concerning Wikipedia changes, and that Silly Putty Syndrome will likely continue to escalate.

Given what Wikipedia could aspire to be, that's really a shame.


Posted by Lauren at 03:56 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 17, 2007

U.S. Spy Satellites vs. Google Earth (I Spy with My Big Eye)

Greetings. When it comes to privacy concerns, it's best not to waste your breath worrying about issues that don't really matter much in the scheme of things -- there are too many really important concerns that can go sliding blithely by if you're not careful.

When people raised a big stink about Google Maps Street View, I suggested that it didn't represent a problem in its current form with infrequently updated images. In fact, we have far more to worry about from the proliferation of law enforcement accessible cameras being deployed widely with little or no real oversight and massive capabilities for abuse.

A similar scenario is now playing out in the area of satellite surveillance, where it was just announced that the Bush administration -- apparently with the blessing of key Congressional committees who by all rights should know better -- plans to begin using real-time surveillance satellites for law enforcement purposes inside the U.S. (e.g. domestic spying).

These satellites, designed with immensely powerful capabilities for international surveillance purposes, will now not only be used by the federal government for whatever domestic purposes it sees fit, but the plan also includes making them available to all levels of law enforcement throughout the country.

Of course, we're being promised that access to this treasure-trove of superlative quality imagery and other data will be properly controlled.

Right, just like the way that use of National Security Letters was properly controlled ("Sorry, the dog ate our files, we can't even tell you how much NSL abuse actually went on!"). Or like the wholesale vacuuming of Internet data via secret wiretapping closets ("Your honor, you must dismiss the case, because it has no merit, we'd never admit to such a thing, and if we told you what really went on it would violate national security and upset the tradecraft boys no end!")

In other words, any time that we grant the government extraordinary surveillance capabilities, oversight and trust are key. We do not have sufficient oversight in place, and this administration has squandered any trust that they might have originally had.

In this light, concerns about Google Earth's static imagery fade mightily on the concern-o-meter compared with the concept of NSA and CIA birds pointing their focal lengths in our direction under control of the current merry gang inside the beltway.

Google has its faults, but in match-ups between Google and Attorney General ("I can't recall ...") Gonzales, you'll likely find me rooting for the Google Boys every time.

Watch the skies!


Posted by Lauren at 12:46 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 11, 2007

Announcing New Google Issues Discussion Forum

Greetings. With so many important Google-related issues piling up lately, a number of folks (you know who you are!) have suggested that a serious public forum for reasoned discussion of Google policy and operational topics would be useful. As the dominant player in the search industry and increasingly important in related fields, Google's influence on the rest of the industry, plus the Internet and world in general, cannot be underestimated.

Yelling at each other about such matters doesn't do us any good in the long run. On the other hand, some rational discussions could well be quite productive.

Never one to stand in the way of meaningful progress, and since the linear nature of my blog makes comments unwieldy there, I've gone the whole hog and am pleased to announce a public Google discussion forum, with a wide range of Google discussion topics (under the auspices of PFIR Forums) at:

In an effort to assure that this forum offers thoughtful discourse regarding Google and its effects, without personal attacks or sideshow antics, all submissions will be moderated (by yours truly).

To encourage wide participation, it is not necessary to register with the forum before reading or submitting messages (however, there are advantages to doing so, such as e-mail delivery of new postings and profile customization). Users may create new discussion category threads as appropriate.

Below is the initial list of Google discussion categories, all starting with a clean slate. Please spread the word, and let's try to make the forum a significant contribution to both understanding and dealing with a very important set of issues indeed.

I hope to see you over on the Google discussion forum.

== Initial Topics ==

  • Search Issues: Discussions concerning Google policies and operations that affect Google search results, rankings, the manner in which Web sites are "spidered" by Google for content, search engine optimization (SEO), and related topics
  • Gmail: Issues related to Google's "Gmail" service
  • Advertising - AdSense, AdWords, etc.: Issues related to Google advertising platforms and services
  • Privacy and Intellectual Property: Google privacy and intellectual property issues that are not specific to other Google discussion topic categories
  • Book Search: Issues associated specifically with Google's "Book Search" service
  • YouTube and Google Video: Policies and operational aspects of Google's YouTube service and Google Video
  • Communications with Google: Positive or negative experiences related to communications/contacts with Google regarding any relevant issues, experiences, concerns, disputes, etc.
  • Miscellaneous: All Google issues that do not currently fall into any of the other Google discussion categories


Posted by Lauren at 03:23 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 09, 2007

Google Takes First Key Step Toward Search Dispute Resolutions

Greetings. As readers of my essays are no doubt (perhaps painfully) aware, I've been pounding for some time on the issue of "dispute resolutions" for Web search results, particularly relating to Google as the dominant player in the search industry.

Now comes the fascinating word that Google has made a highly significant move in this direction. While limited in key respects, I believe it may open the door to consideration of the broader issues I've noted in texts such as:

Search Engine Dispute Notifications: Request For Comments

Extending Google Blacklists for Dispute Resolutions

A Most Remarkable Google Page: Toward Search Dispute Resolutions

Essentially, as indicated in this AP story, Google will now reportedly permit the subjects or authors of news stories displayed in the Google News aggregation system -- after identity authentication -- to file disputes/comments relating to those stories, which will then appear on the same page as the original search results.

While this is a bit different from my proposal for links to external sites for dispute purposes, the underlying principle is the same, and it still represents an enormous sea change in fundamental Google methodology, at least as far as Google News is concerned.

Much more importantly, I believe that it sets the stage for serious consideration of similar changes to the broader Web search arena (that is, not limited to news stories) -- in fact I suspect moves in this direction will now become eventually inevitable.

The reason is clear -- there is ultimately no valid rationale for persons in articles that happen to be categorized as news stories to have a right of dispute and comment, but for everyone else on "non-news" Web pages to not have similar capability options, even in serious cases of defamation or other abuses.

Having said that, there is still an enormous difference in scale between dealing with the relatively limited number of news stories, (limited that is in comparison with the total number of Web pages) vs. a broader Web results dispute system. The latter would entail an entirely different magnitude of filtering/prioritization and authentication of dispute requests, mechanisms to avoid falsified disputes or "gaming" of the dispute system, etc., all on a potentially very large scale indeed.

However, these are exactly the search engine dispute-related technical, structural, and organizational issues I've been actively working on as noted in my links above. I very much believe that there are practical solutions that can enable broad implementation of a general Web search results dispute resolution system without entailing undue burden to Google (or other search engines) and without significant negative side-effects. It will not be simple by any means, but with an appropriate organizational structure and topology, it can be done.

Google appears to have now acknowledged that at least in the news context, the community will benefit from dispute and comment-related materials being displayed along with some search results. This really is a big deal.

The task now is to move forward toward the much tougher but exceptionally important goal of extending such capabilities to the broader universe of non-news Web page search engine results across the entire Web. This needs to be done right, but could well represent one of the most positive and far-reaching changes for the Internet since the development of the search engines themselves.


Posted by Lauren at 11:26 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 05, 2007

Call For Search Engine Issues, Complaints, Concerns

Call For Search Engine Issues, Complaints, Concerns
(Please distribute widely as you feel appropriate)

Greetings. As part of my continuing research and an upcoming white paper focusing on policy and related technical issues associated with search engines and their impacts, I'd very much appreciate any examples of relevant specific situations, concerns, and any other positive or negative experiences with search engine operations and support personnel, with a particular emphasis on (but not limited to) the following categories:

  • Attempts to remove or deemphasize from search engine listings any data perceived to promote Web sites containing seriously incorrect, defamatory, misleading, privacy-invasive, or otherwise highly damaging or problematic materials
  • Search engine issues or problems related to "public record" (e.g. government) data, particularly with negative impacts on privacy or individuals' personal lives
  • Issues of "obsolete" or superseded data being promoted by search engine listings, without any indication that such data is no longer current and/or correct
  • Any problems related to search engine caches exacerbating the sorts of issues listed above or other related problems
  • And so on ...
I am particularly interested in any experiences you may have had while attempting to contact search engine personnel (either through provided Web forms or other means) with concerns or problems, and the dispositions of those communications.

For this round, I am specifically not soliciting issues related to "Search Engine Optimization" (SEO) concerns (e.g., "How come my Web site always ranks lower than that other Web site on Google?")

For any sagas you relate to me, please be as specific as possible (within whatever bounds that you feel comfortable) -- but at the very least please identify the particular search engine of concern and the approximate time period of the issue. Unless you specify otherwise, I will assume that I may note the issue (on an anonymous basis) in my reports on this subject. If you'd prefer that I don't reference your issue in any form, or if you don't mind being quoted non-anonymously for attribution, please let me know.

Please send any information that you can provide as soon as possible to:

For some recent background on the issues of concern, please see:

Search Engine Dispute Notifications: Request For Comments

Extending Google Blacklists for Dispute Resolutions

A Most Remarkable Google Page: Toward Search Dispute Resolutions

Benefits and Risks in Google's Public Records Access Project

Thanks very much!


Posted by Lauren at 04:04 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 04, 2007

Congress Expands Wiretap Authority, and Mainly the Innocents Lose

Greetings. Little noticed amongst wall-to-wall coverage of the Minneapolis bridge disaster is another drama of a different sort, as the Senate voted yesterday, and the House today, for an expansion of warrantless wiretapping authority demanded by the Bush administration. (Please see this Washington Post article for more details.)

A key demand fulfilled in the legislation (which has been written so that the authority may be reconsidered in six months) involves wiretapping of voice and data that merely transits the United States, rather than necessarily having endpoints here. Given the topology of voice and especially Internet networks, this opens up a vast range of materials to surveillance by an administration that has already shown itself to be ethically bankrupt when it comes to the appropriate handling of such powers.

Be that as it may, the ultimate irony in the situation is that such moves are likely to have the unintended consequence of speeding the pace at which such surveillance techniques become ineffective against the real bad guys.

Increasingly, the people we'd really like to catch -- especially at higher levels -- are assuming that their telecommunications are being monitored, and moving increasingly to heavily encrypted communications, steganographic obfuscation techniques, and other mechanisms to protect their communications.

This leaves the communications of ordinary, innocent persons open to broad snooping from governmental or other entities, especially in the wake of the sorts of sweeping "vacuum cleaner" data collection techniques and surveillance mistargeting that we know takes place (e.g., mass diversion of backbone Internet traffic) despite the administration's continuing attempts to block information about its ultimate extent.

Most of us rarely encrypt our communications since (a) we don't usually feel an obvious need to do so, and (b) truly automatic and easy to use crypto mechanisms have yet to be widely deployed. "What do I say that anyone would care to listen to?" is a common refrain, but it's never certain which harmless statements today might be considered "actionable" in a new context tomorrow.

If we had complete faith that our leaders would not abuse the wiretapping powers provided to them, this would be more of an academic discussion than anything else. Unfortunately, both long-term and recent history show that abuses of such surveillance systems are an endemic part of their structure.

That some actionable intelligence is still derived from wiretapping tradecraft is undeniable. But the diminishing value of this information given the rise in encryption use among the primarily targeted groups, suggests that the abuse potential of this form of surveillance increasingly outweighs its legitimate usefulness. This makes the necessity of tight judicial and congressional oversight even more important -- not less.

Congress should resist administration efforts to diminish or marginalize such oversight -- in fact the oversight needs to be greatly strengthened. Even putting aside serious misgivings about the current administration, we should rightly be concerned about how future administrations could abuse wiretapping tools and authorities granted to them.

Fighting crime and terrorism is a worthy goal, but so is preserving the hard-fought rights that we're ultimately trying to protect. To do the former without the latter is to undermine the very foundations of what makes this country great.


Posted by Lauren at 09:13 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

August 02, 2007

Google Images Illegal? -- And the Price of Freedom

Greetings. Are perhaps millions of photos on Google Image Search, other search engines, and the associated, linked hosting Web sites to be made illegal?

That appears to be essentially the plan of some legislators here in California, who are pushing for a law making it illegal to display photos of young children on the Internet "without permission." Note that the idea isn't just to prohibit pornographic photos, or naked photos, but all photos of "toddlers" -- including fully clothed in completely public settings.

A quick survey of the Google Image Search database yielded over 600K hits simply for "toddler or toddlers" -- one can easily imagine the scope of similar photos to be found using other related keywords.

This new move toward photo restrictions is being driven by the same forces -- laudable but misguided and ineffective attempts to protect children -- that I discussed a few months ago in the context of mandated ID requirements for Web site access:

MySpace, Google, and the Path to Tyranny

In the current case, the outrage is over an admitted "pedophile" (currently living out of his car here in L.A.), who has no criminal record, is not a registered sex offender, and says he does not act upon his impulses in illegal ways. Municipalities are trying to find ways to ban him and make illegal his apparently favorite activity -- taking photos of children in public places and posting them on his Web site.

That this character is exceedingly creepy is undeniable. That he might be potentially dangerous is obviously not at all out of the question. But in fact, what's he's committing at this point is literally nothing more than "thought crime" in the purest sense of Orwell's 1984 -- and if the plan now is to try cage up everyone who ever thinks dangerous thoughts ... well, we're going to need a lot of space for the necessary concentration camps.

Similarly, trying to make it illicit to display such photos taken in public places is a potentially disastrous path. Do the proponents of such a course seriously believe that "nasty people" won't continue to trade any and all photos through underground channels? And when the first stage proves ineffective, what's the next step? Ban photos of public buildings? People's houses? Cars? Dogs?

Well, there goes the immensely valuable Google Maps images, Google Earth, and Google Street View down the toilet, not to mention their competition in these various technology spaces.

One wonders what the endgame is in the reasoning of the folks who propose such restrictions on information? We've already seen Homeland Security used as an excuse for blocking community access to data about dangerous sites within their midsts, and for harassing innocent people taking photos of bridges and tunnels. Such restrictive actions can easily lead to cover-ups and actual disasters. In a time when our physical infrastructure is crumbling for lack of funds (while hundreds of billions are being spent on Iraq and the "war on terror"), a serious rethinking of our priorities would seem to be in order. Would a bit more money spent on infrastructure instead of padding "terror war" contractors pockets have saved those lives lost on the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis yesterday? It's difficult not to ponder the question.

Homeland security arguments may seem a far cry from trying to ban photos of children. But the underlying principles are the same. I'll say this yet again for the umpteenth time. You cannot effectively censor the Internet. To be sure, not every datum of information should be on the Internet in the first place, but once it's out there, you can't take it back. And public places are by definition public. Trying to impose a special category of "public places whose images are not allowed on the Internet" is simply impractical and ineffective, and in the end also ridiculous and dangerous.

While I have indeed called for research and discussion in the areas of Search Engine Dispute Notifications, this approach is associated with my belief that the only "cure" for problematic information on the Internet is more information, not less.

New demands for Internet IDs (e.g., an "Internet Driver's License"), and the various calls for broad restrictions on photos and other data from public places, are being driven not only by fear, but also by political and other opportunism as well.

Unless we wish to see the Internet reduced to a pablum of the lowest common denominator, it is imperative that we stand up for key principles, even when that means sometimes having to align ourselves in certain respects with some of the least admirable members of society.

Such is the nature of standing up for freedom, not only in the 21st century, but throughout human history.


Posted by Lauren at 12:26 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein