September 30, 2008

Debunking Google Android Conspiracy Theories

Greetings. Since I've lately written enthusiastically about Google's Android cell phone OS, and also expressed enthusiasm for the first Android phone (HTC's G1 T-Mobile "Dream" -- with a proviso regarding the inability of an unlocked G1 to operate in 3G mode on AT&T's network), I've received a lot of responses.

Many of these were technical questions that I'm not yet in a position to address. I haven't yet touched a physical G1 -- the Android SDK program development environment is very well designed but obviously can't substitute completely for the actual instrumentality of the device itself. Some replies were arguments regarding why the G1 won't support AT&T 3G. I consider this to be largely a marketing decision by HTC/T-Mobile -- other observers are free to have their own opinions of course.

But of particular note was the flurry of (cue the theremin!) Android Conspiracy Theory (ACT) messages that I received, mostly of the "Android is just another facet of Google's plans for global domination and control through a Google World Order (GWO). Into the valley of crazies we go again.

Admittedly, I can't help but be amused by some of this nonsense. Android is a wide open and open source platform. Unlike some vendors, like -- uh -- Apple with the iPhone, anyone will be able to write and distribute Android applications based completely on the free SDK. Again unlike Apple, there is no central control over Android applications distribution, so ridiculous situations like Apple refusing to allow a third-party podcasting application to be distributed for the iPhone -- ostensibly because it "duplicates" existing phone functionality -- will not occur (what kind of wacko reasoning is behind this kind of Apple control freak attitude? The mind boggles.)

The Android security architecture appears to be extremely well thought out, including all of the aspects that are of most concern from a privacy standpoint. Applications are signed by developers, but self-signed certificates are both acceptable and typical -- a model that is very much in sync with my own preference for self-signed certs whenever possible.

I have seen absolutely nothing to suggest that Google will have any kind of "backdoor" into Android users' phone data. Obviously if you use Google applications (Search, Gmail, Maps, etc.) you'll be generating data and log entries similar to those that you would when using those services from any other device.

But to those of you who have suggested that Android is Google's attempt to record every phone number that you dial and even monitor your phone calls ... well ... I file such conspiracy theories in the same plastic-lined waste container also reserved for tales of alien abductions and chupacabra sightings.

And if that's not enough to convince you, there's one other point to remember. The cellular carriers -- in the case of the G1 typically T-Mobile for now -- are required by law to provide various degrees of protection for customer usage (e.g. called number) data -- albeit not the high level of protection from government snooping that many persons would prefer to see in place these days. Google's providing their Android OS for the G1 doesn't change any of T-Mobile's obligations in this regard.

Android is going to be a Very Big Deal -- a textbook example of a technology game changer. Its open applications development and distribution model will likely relegate the current iPhone methodology to laughable status in short order. I expect to see a veritable flood of Android applications of every conceivable sort (some likely by my own hand).

As far as I can determine right now, Google has simply done Android right.


Posted by Lauren at 01:50 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Bailout Failure: Lies and Lack of Apologies in a Parallel Universe

Greetings. All over the news and blogosphere, observers are attempting postmortems on the failure of the Wall Street bailout legislation in Congress yesterday (the new term in vogue for the package is "rescue" rather than bailout, presumably to make it sound less like the charity it obviously was designed to be).

I'm no economist, but the main reason behind the bailout's failure to pass (on its first attempt, anyway) seems rather obvious to me and consists of just one word: LIES.

Viewed dispassionately, it's clear that some sort of bailout (not necessarily the one just voted down) is needed. Quickly.

But we've been lied to so much that it's completely understandable why people feel the way they do and have been screaming bloody murder at their government representatives that they don't want the bailout.

We've been lied to about the PATRIOT Act. Lied to about Iraq. Lied to by the mortgage lenders and banks, and by untold numbers of economic pundits.

Why don't people see the urgency of the situation? One reason is that the inner workings of the credit markets have been largely invisible to most of us all along. But there's another very important factor.

Turn on the TV. Turn on the radio. You'll see and hear exactly the same array of commercials for investment plans, banks, and cheap home loans as always. It's as if nothing whatever has changed, like a parallel universe to the crisis atmosphere we see on the news in-between the advertising spots.

What's more, I have yet to hear or see a single commercial, ad, or broadcast media announcement on radio or television from any bank or other financial institution that says, "We're suspending our normal advertising to tell you that we're in crisis -- we need your help -- and we apologize for our greed and misleading actions up to now." Fat chance.

Instead, what we observe is Wall Street's typical array of commercials suggesting business as usual. Invest! Buy! Dream the dream!

No wonder that most people feel that they're being fed yet another lie with the bailout plan, and are passing along these feelings to their congressmen.

The financial industry is now reaping the whirlwind of greed. And the rest of us are being sucked into their nightmare.


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

September 25, 2008

T-Mobile Caves on 1 GB 3G Data Limit for HTC G1 Google Android Phone

Greetings. After a chorus of rather skeptical public articles regarding T-Mobile's plans to severely speed throttle users of the new HTC G1 Google Android Phone who reached 1 GB of usage within a single billing cycle, T-Mobile has now removed the 1 GB throttle trigger language from their 3G information page.

The original language, as I earlier noted, was:

If your total data usage in any billing cycle is more than 1GB, your data throughput for the remainder of that cycle may be reduced to 50 kbps or less. Your data session, plan, or service may be suspended, terminated, or restricted for significant roaming or if you use your service in a way that interferes with our network or ability to provide quality service to other users.

The new wording on that same information page:

To provide the best network experience for all of our customers we may temporarily reduce data throughput for a small fraction of customers who use a disproportionate amount of bandwidth. Your data session, plan, or service may be suspended, terminated, or restricted for significant roaming or if you use your service in a way that interferes with our network or ability to provide quality service to other users.

So what appeared to be a rather hard limit to trigger throttling has been replaced with a hazier definition that seems to leave considerable wiggle room for adjustment and dealing with individual cases in a more appropriate manner. In particular, I'd anticipate that G1 users whose data usage is more spread out over the month rather than bunched up over short periods will be less likely to run into problems, even if (as will be rather easy to do) their usage exceeds 1 GB within a single billing cycle.

It will be interesting to see how T-Mobile manages this new policy in practice, but this does seem to remove a significant potential problem for early Android adopters.


Blog Update (December 2, 2008): T-Mobile Likely to Establish 10 GB Data Cap

Posted by Lauren at 03:14 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Unlocked HTC Android G1 on AT&T Will Be S-l-o-w

Blog Update (October 26, 2008): Beware: T-Mobile's Voicemail Paging Trap

Blog Update (September 25, 2008 3:15 PM): T-Mobile Caves on 1 GB 3G Data Limit for HTC G1 Google Android Phone

Greetings. A couple of days ago I discussed the issue of T-Mobile's 1 GB limit on 3G data usage per billing cycle, after which extreme data speed throttling may be imposed. I also speculated that an unlocked HTC G1 Google Android phone running on AT&T's network instead of T-Mobile's might be quite a treat.

Unfortunately, it turns out that there's a catch. The G1 appears to be specifically designed -- at least in its current T-Mobile incarnation -- to be incompatible with AT&T's 3G network frequencies, which are different from T-Mobile's 3G configuration. Whether this could be changed strictly through firmware alterations is unclear at this time -- it appears doubtful.

An unlocked T-Mobile G1 could still operate in conventional GSM/GPRS/EDGE modes on the AT&T network, but the lower data speeds would obviously impact the user experience.

There is no obvious technical reason for such a limitation to be in place, so it seems reasonable to assume that it is a purposeful decision to discourage movement of the device between networks. Note that Apple's iPhone is in a similar situation -- it's tied to AT&T and its 3G frequencies are incompatible with T-Mobile 3G.

I still think that the G1 and Android look like a great combination, but if you're ever tempted by unlocked current versions of the G1 (or iPhone for that matter) and are thinking about moving them to the competing U.S. domestic 3G-capable network, keep in mind that 3G speeds will be out of reach, not by accident or technical necessity, but apparently purely by marketing design.


Posted by Lauren at 08:47 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 23, 2008

Google Phone "Heavy" Data Users May be Throttled

Blog Update (September 25, 2008 3:15 PM): T-Mobile Caves on 1 GB 3G Data Limit for HTC G1 Google Android Phone

Greetings. With today's official announcement of the HTC G1 smartphone running Google's long-awaited Android OS -- sure to inspire significant data usage by many adopters -- a particular section in the fine print of T-Mobile's 3G data information page was brought to my attention by several alert observers. To wit:

If your total data usage in any billing cycle is more than 1GB, your data throughput for the remainder of that cycle may be reduced to 50 kbps or less. Your data session, plan, or service may be suspended, terminated, or restricted for significant roaming or if you use your service in a way that interferes with our network or ability to provide quality service to other users.

I'm actually rather disinclined to pass judgment on this policy just yet. Given the special characteristics and limitations of cellular data networks that are certainly different from non-wireless systems, true "data hogs" on the former can be a genuine problem.

However, there are a couple of concerns. First, a powerful phone like the G1 is, as I suggested above, going to encourage data usage to an extent not usually seen for other phones in standalone usage. The wide open Google Android development and applications distribution environments are likely to encourage a vast range of attractive data-hungry programs for the G1 -- perhaps far exceeding those of Apple's relatively closed-environment iPhone.

This means that reaching 1 GB of data in a month might not be a particularly difficult feat with the G1 (or later Android phones that will appear). We're talking about a bit more than 30 MB per day data usage -- and that's just not the same sort of "big" number that it used to be. If data throttling kicks in, you're likely to really notice the drop from 3G speeds down to 50 Kbps or less (hmm -- just how much less? Inquiring minds want to know ...)

I must admit that I'm certainly interested in putting a G1 Android phone through its paces and reporting the results, though I'm not prepared at this point to jump over to a 2-year T-Mobile contract for the privilege. I continue to wonder how much longer T-Mobile will continue without an attempt made to merge it with one of the other U.S. wireless carriers, and some of possibilities in that regard are rather depressing.

G1 manufacturer HTC builds great phones. My Cingular 8125 (HTC Wizard) has provided excellent service for several years within its design capabilities, but there's no way getting around that fact that its getting rather long in the tooth, and going out for lunch waiting for MS WM5 to boot does get a bit boring after a while.

So I freely admit that if an unlocked G1 Android suddenly appeared here, the SIM card in my Wizard would fly into the G1 faster than you can say PageRank. I won't hold my breath for this to transpire, however. [ Additional note (9/24/08): Unfortunately, a G1 on AT&T's network would be restricted to slower EDGE data speeds (or Wi-Fi), since the G1 in 3G mode will reportedly only operate (within the U.S.) on T-Mobile's 3G frequency, which is incompatible with AT&T's 3G frequencies. ]

We could potentially be heading for the bizarre and unfortunate situation, in both the cellular wireless and wired Internet environments, where uber-powerful consumer devices of various sorts may routinely outstrip the capabilities of commonly used Internet access facilities (and/or easily run afoul of ISP terms-of-service agreements).

Such circumstances would certainly not be expected to inspire consumer confidence nor enthusiasm, to be sure.


Posted by Lauren at 06:24 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 21, 2008

Bailout Plan: Don't Apply Unless You're at the Top of the Economic Food Chain

Greetings. The economic bailout plan being pushed by the Bush administration is coming into focus, and as one would expect from this gang it's a textbook definition of trickle-down economic theory at work.

Among some of the interesting aspects in its current incarnation that show just how far down the economic help food chain grunts like you and I reside:

- Officials are pushing for the plan (backed by U.S. taxpayer dollars) to also
apply to foreign firms with investments in the U.S.

- No limits on executive pay for the brilliant minds at the firms who will be taking bailout charity from the feds. Congress can work on that later, we're told. Phew, that's a relief! It's only fair that your lifestyles not be crimped after you've wrecked the economy through unbridled, leeching greed, and destroyed the lives of untold numbers of the ordinary folks who shop at Target and Walmart (and shockingly don't have De Beers on their phones' speed dial).

- No help for homeowners facing foreclosure

- No economic stimulus package (unless you've blown away billions of other people's dollars in an obscene orgy of rampant speculation)

- There apparently is no Plan B in case this monster doesn't work.

Here's my bottom line. At this stage of the game, I don't care how "clean" the bill is ("clean" apparently meaning direct help only for the top stratum of society). If they're going to go ahead with this immense bailout, some of these other issues need to be in there also, at least in initial forms. Trying to get them done later if and when the pressure is off may be impossible.

Hey, powers-that-be -- can you hear me from way down here? Show some decency and concern for ordinary people, just for once, huh? Surprise us all.


Posted by Lauren at 09:57 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 19, 2008

How to Avoid the Sarah Palin "Secret Question" Account Trap

Greetings. I've already discussed the hacking of Sarah Palin's Yahoo e-mail account and why that hack was both dumb and wrong.

But how was this attack accomplished? Reports suggest that a youngster exploited one of the weakest aspects of account protection at many sites, the so-called "secret question" system.

The secret question (and its corresponding "secret answer") is supposed to be used for you to recover system access when you've lost or forgotten your real password. Questions like: "What is your favorite color?" or "What High School did you attend?" (that's the one that was used in Palin's case, we're told), or "What was your first dog's name?" and so on.

Supposedly the concept behind this approach is to come up with something that you know well and won't forget. The problem of course is that in many cases the answers to these questions are trivial to guess or research, as seems to have been the case with Palin's account hacker.

Is there a way to avoid just using random alphanumeric strings as answers to secret questions (that's my approach of choice, by the way) and still reduce the probability of your answers being easily hacked?

Sure. Lots of ways. Here are just a few.

You can simply answer the questions incorrectly -- that's an obvious approach. Or you can misspell answers. One particularly useful technique is simply to add unrelated text onto the correct answers (ideally different at every site, but even using the same add-on string everywhere would be better than nothing within the context of secret questions). So for example, your first dog might be Manfred23Skidoo. Your favorite color could be blueRasputin. And so on.

The idea is simply to choose answers that are memorable, combined with some additional easy to remember text that renders the main part of the answer useless for hacking by itself, even by someone who has researched your pets, color preferences, educational background, and so on.

Such simple techniques can go a long way toward helping to protect your Internet accounts without requiring any changes to the systems themselves. Obviously these methods are not foolproof, but small changes in the ways that we treat account information can make significant improvements in security, with relatively little effort on our part really being required.


Posted by Lauren at 04:29 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Holding Financial Executives Personally Responsible for This Mess

Greetings. In all the talk this morning about a trillion dollar "rescue plan" for the economy, I have yet to see discussion of providing for the punishment of -- and restitution from -- the financial service firms' executives who got us into this mess -- many of whom still managed to collect enormous salaries right up to the present. Or are they going to be provided with civil lawsuit immunity in the name of "stability" and the like while the rest of us tread water?

Now, I'm not necessarily suggesting hardcore prison time for these guys (though it could be highly instructive and has been a traditional punishment for unbridled greed in the past, at least among commoners who have done damage to society), but maybe they should at least be required to personally perform some "down in the trenches" community services -- like perhaps 100,000 hours each as a start.

Are we going to let these clowns get away with this kind of crap scot-free yet again?


Posted by Lauren at 08:27 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 17, 2008

Why Hacking Sarah Palin's E-Mail Was Dumb, Dumber, and Just Plain Wrong

Greetings. By now you've probably heard -- assuming that we're not dealing with a sophisticated and probably unlikely political hoax -- that Sarah Palin's Yahoo account has been hacked, and apparently quantities of her e-mail, photos, and related materials have been publicly posted.

Since it has previously been suggested in some quarters that Gov. Palin often used private e-mail accounts for Alaska state business -- which would avoid government data retention laws associated with official e-mail -- the exposure of the Yahoo data seems to be triggering considerable glee in some quarters.

As much as I hold in disdain the concept of someone like Sarah Palin being considered for a single microsecond as qualified to be Vice President of this great country, and as much as I find most of her viewpoints and her public modus operandi to be appalling, I still must assert that any joy over this hacking is dumb, wrong -- and dangerous -- both from ethical and practical standpoints.

The ethical issue should be clear enough and is as old as mankind -- we shouldn't be doing to others that which we wouldn't want done to ourselves. Palin's truly personal e-mail and photos have no bearing on the political situation, yet they've been posted along with everything else. There's simply no justifying this from an ethical standpoint.

But the practical issues are equally obvious. There are official channels for the gathering of electronic evidence in cases of suspected wrongdoing. Those channels should not and normally do not include -- and in fact efforts at prosecution can be stymied by -- ad hoc public releases, especially when those materials are obtained through illegal acts as was apparently the case in this situation. Exposure can also trigger premature deletion (maybe still retrievable, maybe not) of other materials that might have been useful to investigators, as may have already happened in this case.

Even worse, this chain of events plays into the hands of the Palin/McCain campaign (some observers have suggested that perhaps this was all actually a "dirty trick" from that side -- I consider this to be extremely unlikely based on what we know right now).

The hacking and publication of Palin's data unfortunately feeds directly into the sensibilities of many of Palin's supporters, who have already been attempting to position her (up to now I would have said without merit) as a victim of unfair treatment -- and using this to their political advantage. Now the hackers who released her data have handed that campaign a gift that on balance will probably help Palin's and McCain's efforts between now and election day.

Many in the public will react to this event with a natural revulsion to the apparent privacy violation, regardless of the contents of the material that was released in this situation.

The concept of Sarah Palin being Vice President of the U.S. is not only utterly unacceptable, but also just this side of completely insane. Her presence on the GOP ticket can't help but cause one to question John McCain's judgment and unfortunately his previously untarnished integrity as well.

But none of this justifies the hacking of Sarah Palin's accounts. The hackers in this case haven't done any favor to those of us who don't want to see Palin one heartbeat away from the President, and have simultaneously struck a blow against continuing efforts to bring ethics back into the political discourse.

Dumb, dumber, and wrong.


Posted by Lauren at 07:10 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 16, 2008

Madness: Bailing Out Greed in Wonderland

Greetings. I'm writing this from somewhere down the rabbit hole. I'm convinced that we must all be living in Alice's Wonderland these days, watching the parade of insanity playing across the news media machine recently.

That global machine is buzzing right now with word that the Feds may be about to announce a massive bailout of AIG. This after massive federal charity for Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac to keep them from drowning in their own bad investment decisions. The AIG bailout isn't confirmed just yet, but reports appear to be converging. [ Update 6 PM PDT: The AIG bailout is now confirmed. ]

This is the same government that not so long ago made it much more difficult for individuals to file for personal bankruptcy, in line with the GOPs' call for "individual responsibility" in such matters. In other words, if you're a (formerly) filthy rich financial services corporation that screws up -- after getting your claws so deeply into the economy that any attempt at removal will cause a death by millions of cuts -- the taxpayers will be called upon to bail you out.

On the other hand, if you're some poor slob trying to make a living actually creating products and services of real value -- not just pushing money around -- and you get into financial trouble -- well, the government just tells you to go to hell.

And what's the GOP standard bearer's reaction to all this today? John McCain says we need -- get this -- a commission to study the problem! Another damn commission? This isn't like trying to figure out 9/11. It's completely clear how we got into this position: Greed -- lack of appropriate regulation -- the GOP's never-ending belief in "trickle-down" economics and their genuine disdain for the average working man, all wrapped up in the flag and disingenuous talking points of course.

I am physically sickened watching this play out. And I guarantee you that there's no "Drink Me!" or "Eat Me!" solutions that are going to be conveniently sitting around at the bottom of this rabbit hole waiting to be cheerfully consumed.

Absolute, unadulterated madness.


Posted by Lauren at 05:35 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 13, 2008

New Short Video: "Network Neutrality in 30 Seconds" (Part 2 - "ISPs, Google, and a Hacksaw")

Greetings. Though I'm still waiting to hear from the Academy regarding an award nomination for the first installment of my "Network Neutrality in 30 Seconds" video series ("Drowning the Competition"), I've tempted the fates yet again with the second chapter:

"Network Neutrality in 30 Seconds" (Part 2 - "ISPs, Google, and a Hacksaw")

While continuing to dispense with such unnecessary frills as video "production values" or the like, I take a very brief look at the ISP industry's declarations that ISP competition is alive and well, as they simultaneously suggest that Google is a monopoly:

Network Neutrality in 30 Seconds - Part 2 (Permanent YouTube Link)

Network Neutrality in 30 Seconds - Part 2 (Current Direct YouTube Link)

Keep your hacksaw handy!


Posted by Lauren at 07:23 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 11, 2008

Google, ISPs, and "Monopolies"

Greetings. Anti-net-neutrality forces seem to have converged on a common set of talking points where they attempt to use a spurious "but Google is worse" defense to explain away the anti-competitive ISP situation in the U.S.

Even a cursory examination of the Internet environment demonstrates the inanity of the comparison.

ISPs control all access to all Internet services for most consumers and businesses. Google, like every other Internet service, is literally at the mercy of ISPs to pass along user traffic appropriately.

What's more, for most consumers, practical, affordable choices of broadband ISPs are limited to two in the U.S. In many areas, that's reduced to one. A surprising number of people can't get affordable broadband at all. Wireless ISPs remain a niche segment, which while large in terms of the number of providers, is very small in terms of market penetration. Line of sight issues, outside antenna requirements, or costs currently make wireless an impractical choice for routine broadband access for the majority of consumers.

So as a practical matter, ISP choices are very limited, and the ability of consumers to choose among competing ISPs, and then to rapidly switch, is similarly constrained.

Google on the other hand is in an entirely different situation. Not only are they dependent on ISPs to reach their users, but users have the ability switch away from Google to a range of competing search, e-mail, and other services almost instantly.

Let's not confuse Google's large market share with the sorely limited ISP marketplace. Google's share is based almost entirely on consumer satisfaction -- by individual users, by sites that use their ad and analytics services, and so on. Yes, in total Google collects a lot of data across the Internet ecosystem, but this is almost entirely the result of voluntary decisions by users at various levels, not the result of an artificially constrained marketplace as in the case of ISPs.

Google consistently ranks very high in consumer satisfaction for a range of Internet services. Yet ask people how they feel about their DSL or Cable provider, and outpourings of affection for these ISPs are usually not exactly forthcoming. Telephone and cable companies still tend to rank very low on customer satisfaction lists.

Whenever people try to blur the difference between ISPs and Google in their arguments, it should be treated as a red flag that something disingenuous this way comes.


Posted by Lauren at 02:30 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 10, 2008

Video: Who's Lipstick on Which Pig?

Greetings. Regular readers know that if there's one thing that drives me crazy, it's when innocent remarks are taken out of context and exploited. I don't care if this occurs in the technical arena or within the quicksand bog that politics has become in this country -- either way such blatant dishonesty is appalling.

So today when the McCain campaign jumped on Obama's use of the colloquial idiom "putting lipstick on a pig" (Obama was discussing McCain's proposed economic policies at the time), by accusing Obama of smearing Sarah Palin (!) -- and I then saw the shameful "piling on" that followed, I got curious about McCain's own choice of words.

Sure 'nuf, it turns out that good ol' "Lawrence Welk" McCain (he spends much of his time now conducting audiences in cheers of "Sarah, Sarah" like the venerable late band leader conducted his musicians), is apparently a fan of pigs and lipstick himself!

Here are just a couple of very brief clips -- in both cases McCain was relatively recently discussing Hillary Clinton's health care proposals -- so presumably McCain was comparing Hillary with a pig? Of course not.

Politics has always been a pretty dirty business, but it appears that the McCain/Rove campaign machine is really rolling in the mud these days.

Update: November 4, 2008 10:24 PM: With the election over, this video has been removed. Congratulations to President-elect Obama!


Posted by Lauren at 06:40 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 08, 2008

Google Halves Non-Anonymized Data Retention Period

Greetings. Google has announced that they are reducing the period that they retain fully non-anonymized logged IP address data from 18 months to 9 months.

Details are not available at this time, and some observers will no doubt harangue that Google was pressured into this action by ongoing regulatory scrutiny.

However I choose to focus on Google's decision as another step in a continuing positive evolution of the firm over time, with the full understanding that balancing the many complex factors associated with this sort of log data is a decidedly non-trivial task.

Keep in mind that around the world, including in Europe and the U.S., there are also legislative moves to require the lengthy retention of a wide variety of log data, ostensibly for law enforcement and other public safety purposes. To say that this creates a complicated environment for a global organization of Google's scope is an understatement to say the least.

Despite the technology that is the visible aspect of Google to most of us, in reality Google is actually people -- individuals with a range of opinions at all levels within the firm. In particular, Google's announcement makes it explicitly and publicly clear that they are cognizant of the often conflicting mix of forces and world views that interplay with data retention concerns.

One thing's for sure -- these are not simple issues, and to pretend that they can be easily resolved to everyone's satisfaction is nothing more than an unrealistic illusion, that doesn't usefully advance the ball at all.


Update: Google has also now just announced that the data retention period for non-anonymized logged IP address data from use of Google Suggest (which I discussed in relation to Google's Chrome Web browser a week ago) will be reduced to less than 24 hours or so. Jolly good show.


Posted by Lauren at 08:42 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 04, 2008

Video: Sarah Palin in 60 Seconds: "Pipeline and Iraq War -- Tasks From God"

Greetings. I can't recall ever posting a church-related video clip before, but there's always a first time for everything. At the Wasillia Assembly of God Church, GOP V.P. Nominee Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska explained how a proposed Alaskan natural gas pipeline and the war in Iraq are God's will and tasks from God (however, she did not reveal her source for this information). As of a few days ago, the original video of her visit is no longer available via the church itself. Longer copies of Sarah's monologue are floating around the Net, but as a public service I've provided a "cuts to the chase" one minute version. I need say no more.

Update: November 4, 2008 10:45 PM: With the election over, this video has been removed. Congratulations to President-elect Obama!


Posted by Lauren at 06:47 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 03, 2008

GOP Operatives Caught on Hot Mike About Sarah Palin

Greetings. During a break in an MSNBC program today, GOP operatives forgot one of the most important rules of radio and television -- always assume that your mike is hot! Their, ah, candid remarks about Sarah Palin speak for themselves.


Posted by Lauren at 04:25 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Privacy Concerns in Microsoft's New IE8 Web Browser

Greetings. Yesterday I posted some thoughts on the privacy policy associated with Google's new Chrome Web browser, and gave the open-source product -- which has a great deal of potential -- an overall thumbs-up based on current information.

I'm afraid that I'm much more concerned about the privacy policy for Microsoft's new Internet Explorer 8 browser (which of course is not open source). While overall functionality and touted privacy improvements appear to be similar in many ways to Chrome, some of the specific privacy-related decisions in IE8 are very different from Chrome -- and not necessarily in a good way. One in particular is significantly alarming.

Some aspects of these issues related to IE8 are not entirely clear only from a reading of the policy -- for example, it appears that IE8's anti-phishing mechanism sends complete URLs, not hashes, to MS and can leak personal URL data, but I'd like to verify this fully -- so I will withhold detailed comment on several concerns for now until I can obtain more information from Microsoft.

But I do want to draw your attention to IE8's "Suggested Sites" feature. While the IE privacy policy suggests that this feature is turned off by default (unlike Chrome's "Google Suggest" feature which is on by default), Suggested Sites appears to carry much higher abuse potential. While Google Suggest only operates on URLs entered manually at the URL location bar, MS' Suggested Sites reportedly transmits your entire Web browsing history to Microsoft, including in some cases search terms and potentially personal information included in URLs!

The IE8 privacy policy notes:

When Suggested Sites is turned on, the addresses of websites you visit are sent to Microsoft, together with some standard information from your computer such as IP address, browser type, regional and language settings. To help protect your privacy, the information is encrypted when sent to Microsoft. Information associated with the web address, such as search terms or data you entered in forms might be included. For example, if you visited the search website at and entered "Seattle" as the search term, the full address will be sent. Address strings might unintentionally contain personal information, but this information is not used to identify, contact or target advertising to you.

Note that the mention of encryption only appears to apply to the actual transit of the data -- Microsoft will apparently end up with a complete copy of your browsing history and associated URL data fields from throughout the Internet, creating a significant potential privacy risk of abuse by outside parties demanding access to this information from Microsoft.

There are certainly other tools that also can be configured to send users' Web browsing history on an ongoing basis to their developers (either as part of basic or extended functionalities), including from Google. However, it is notable that in the design decisions associated with a fundamental "must have" tool like a Web browser, the privacy abuse potential associated with IE8 appears to be much higher than that for Chrome -- simply because the Suggestion feature in IE8 appears to transmit the entire Web browsing history and associated full URL data including any personal information, vs. Chrome's transmission only of directly entered URLs (which by the way are unlikely to contain personal data fields).

While it's true that Chrome's suggestion feature is on by default and IE8's reportedly is off by default, on balance the potential for privacy abuse in the IE8 implementation is of vastly greater concern. At a minimum, I would urge users of IE8 to keep Suggested Sites turned off at all times.

I'll have more to say about IE8 and Chrome as information and my experiences with the products expand.


Posted by Lauren at 08:34 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

September 02, 2008

Quickie Privacy Analysis of Google's New "Chrome" Web Browser

Greetings. Google's new Chrome Web browser beta hasn't been generally available for more than a few hours, and already I'm getting queries regarding its associated privacy policy.

So here's an "instant" quickie analysis, based solely on the info Google has provided as linked just above. Please note that I have not yet looked into any possible privacy or security issues that people have asked me about associated with "borderless" applications (e.g. pages displayed without URL bars, etc.) -- nor do I at this time presuppose that issues of concern exist in that area.

Cutting to the chase, it appears that -- with one exception that I'll discuss below -- Google's Chrome (no affiliation with of course) by and large is defined to behave in a conventional manner when it comes to handling of privacy-sensitive data, including the provision of a "private browsing" mode similar to that in the latest version of Internet Explorer.

In particular -- to answer the most frequently asked question -- there is no evidence that your routine Web site browsing URLs are transmitted to Google as you traverse the Net (I'm making the quite reasonable assumption that such data isn't somehow included in the default sending of "usage statistics" -- for which I did not find a precise definition).

Chrome's anti-phishing system appears to be the same well designed Google-based mechanism -- using primarily hashed URLs -- employed by default in Firefox 3 as well. No problems there as far as I'm concerned.

The only really new privacy-related aspect that may concern some users in Google Chrome appears to be its "Google Suggest" feature tied into the URL address bar. By default this will send information to Google regarding the URLs that you enter directly, to enable URL suggestion data to be returned to the browser from Google. This feature is somewhat similar to Firefox 3's new URL suggestion mechanism, however Firefox's lookup system operates using only local data in a much more limited fashion, without transmitting URL data off of your system during the lookup phase.

So, again by default, if you entered: in the Chrome URL bar, that URL would apparently be transmitted to Google.

Whether or not this represents a problem for any given user is up to them. Obviously it is impossible for Google to provide a broad URL suggestion capability without knowing what you're typing on the URL line. Note though that -- as described on the relevant Google pages -- virtually all of these related features can be disabled by users if they choose to do so.

[ Update (September 9, 2008): Google has just announced that they are reducing the data retention period for non-anonymized logged IP address data from use of Google Suggest to less than 24 hours or so. Excellent. ]

For now, based on the information that I currently have to go on, I'd give Google Chrome a thumbs-up from an overall privacy standpoint, with the proviso that individual users may not wish to accept all of the provided default privacy settings and should avail themselves of the ability to disable (or enable) any specific features as they feel appropriate.

My "day one" summary for Google Chrome (as Arte Johnson used to say on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In): "Very Interesting ... "


Posted by Lauren at 02:10 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein