For years science-fiction author David Brin has been preaching that privacy as we know it is essentially dead, and rather than mourn our loss of shadow we should embrace the light — and make sure it shines in the bedrooms of power as much as it shines in our own. The Cameras Are Coming! has been his battle cry.
I remember hearing Brin speak at the Media Lab sometime in the late 90s and thinking he was completely off the mark if he thought ubiquitous lack of privacy was anything but trouble — I saw it as giving an expert marksman (powerful individuals, companies and governments) and someone who has never held a gun before (us peons) the same high-end rifle and saying "there you go, now you're both equal."
I've not gone completely over to Brin's position, but events in the intervening years have brought me a little closer. First, I've seen no sign of privacy erosion even slowing down and every sign that information wants to be free and unfettered is becoming a new physical law for the 21st century. (In the spirit of Free as in beer and Free as in freedom, this would be the Free as in virus point of view.) The same forces that erode top-down power and barriers to free expression are the forces that erode our privacy — I can't think one is inevitable without accepting the other as well. Second, things like the Abu Grahab scandal give me at least a little hope that light will occasionally leak into even the more protected dens, and that we peons are slowly learning how to shoot. I'm not totally convinced by any stretch (Abu Grahab, I'll point out, has so far only lead to punishment of low-level participants), but it's something.
I came in halfway through Brin's talk in the opening debate at CFP, but I did note one quote I especially liked (slightly paraphrased here):
Give the watchdog better glasses and more freedom, then yank the choke chain to make sure it remembers that it's a dog and not a wolf.
The fundamental question for every free society is how to insure we keep a hold of that choke chain. Shining light in the bedrooms of power is one part of the answer I think, but it's not enough.
I've some thoughts of what else is needed, but they involve questions about free will — and anyone who's heard me rant in person on the topic knows I'd never get to sleep if I started down that path tonight...
The Company also announced that the Company was contacted Friday, April 22 by the U. S. Attorney's Office for The Eastern District of Virginia, which is opening an investigation. In addition, the Audit Committee, through its legal counsel, has contacted the Securities and Exchange Commission in connection with the previously disclosed Audit Committee investigation and findings. The Company will cooperate fully in these investigations and any others.
The Company also affirmed that it continues to face a severe liquidity crisis and possible insolvency. There can be no assurances that the Company will have sufficient cash to meet its financial obligations or fund continuing operations. The Office of the Chairman of the Board is authorized to retain a consultant with financial and management restructuring expertise. The Company intends to work with such adviser to reduce costs, conserve cash, and obtain advice regarding restructuring and other alternatives to maximize shareholder value.
I remember several years ago hearing grumbling (unconfirmed by me) that folks at Xybernaut were pumping their stock with misleading press releases and then selling on the bump, but this is looking like much larger chickens coming home to roost.
MIT is hosting the first, last, and only Time Traveler Convention on May 7th, 2005 in the East Campus Courtyard. As their announcement points out:
Technically, you would only need one time traveler convention. Time travelers from all eras could meet at a specific place at a specific time, and they could make as many repeat visits as they wanted.
So to help out, scratch out these temporal-spacial coordinates on a hunk of metal and throw it into your local salt mine:
Time Traveler's Convention! May 7, 2005, 1 hour 56 minutes past sunset, 42:21:36.025°N, 71:05:16.332°W
(Thanks to Josh for the link!)
Update 9/22/5566: The conference was a blast! If you wind up going (and I recommend you do) be sure to say hello — I'll be the one with the green sports blazer, red fez and blue tentacles.
According to an article in today's Wired, the discussions with Frank Moss at this year's CFP conference actually had an impact. The State Department is now moving towards embracing the Basic Access Control security scheme, which essentially encrypts communication with the RFID chip using a key obtained by physically scanning a page on the passport itself. Definitely a step in the right direction.
One bit of the Wired article is wrong (or at least misleading) though:
Moss said the German government and other members of the European Union had embraced BAC because they planned to write more data to the chip than just the written data that appears on the passport photo page. Many countries plan to include at least two fingerprints, digitized, in their passport chips.
At CFP, Moss said the US passport RFID chip would include not only the written data the passport's main page but also a digital photograph, which presumably isn't significantly fewer bits than a couple fingerprints (not that I've looked up the specs to check sizes).
Mobile and wearable computer hardware vendor Xybernaut Corp. said Wednesday (April 20) it had fired several top-level officers and announced the resignation of its accounting firm after an independent audit revealed widespread management corruption, including the use of company funds for personal expenses and nepotism by the company's CEO.
Ed Felton argues that the new Family Movie Act (passed by Congress on Tuesday and likely to be signed by the President) actually protects free speech rather than, as some might claim, protects censorship. (The act, for those who haven't heard, makes it legal to edit out limited portions of a non-pirated home-viewed movie at the direction of a member of that household — so it's OK to make a DVD player that optionally skips all the sex scenes, scenes with Jar-Jar Binx, or for that matter the sex scenes with Jar-Jar Binx.)
I agree with Ed here — empowering individuals to choose what they want to watch or not watch doesn't promote censorship any more than movie reviews or the TV remote control do. The only case that would trouble me is if there were a systemic bundling of edits — for example if the only anti-violence filter for a movie also filtered out all the sex scenes. But given that such bundling already happens in the editing room of the movie itself and given that there will likely be competition in this arena (baring broad patents) I don't see that scenario as likely.
Something to remember as the far right tries to rile up their Christian base with talk of a War on Faith is that about 80% of Americans* are Christian, compared to only about 15% non-religious, atheist or agnostic. So when they say there's a war on faith, especially in the broader context of a "culture war," they don't mean a battle between the faithful and the non-faithful. They mean a battle between their conservative orthodoxy and moderate people of faith.
*American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2001. Percentages are out of the 196,734 people who agreed to answer the question.
Google has indexed around 8 billion web pages, total.
Nearly 15 trillion copies are produced on copiers, printers, and multi-function machines per year.
Update 4/20/05: fixed Google stat from 8 million to 8 billion (what's a few orders of magnitude among friends?) and added copier stat. (Thanks to Mort & Beemer for keeping me honest.)
BBC Radio Four's Science Frontiers has a nice show this week about neuroprosthetics, including interviews with Micuel Nicolelis at Duke and folks at the Donoghue Lab at Brown. Streaming audio is here for another day or so. (Link by way of Mind Hacks.)
I've always been skeptical when people said violence in TV shows or video games lead to more violent behavior in children. It's always smacked of hysteria and panic, particularly back when Doom was being blamed for Columbine and other school shootings. Cognitive Daily has just posted a three-part series summarizing a report published by the American Psychological Society that has me convinced I was wrong — there really is an effect and a problem here, especially with regard to violence in TV and video games. CD concludes:
Overall, the research on media violence, whether it was experimental or correlational, has shown a significant correlation between media violence and aggressive behavior. Though the correlations are sometimes small, Anderson and his colleagues point out that they are at least as significant as other behaviors considered to be very risky, such as exposure to asbestos and smoking cigarettes.
It’s clear from the research we have discussed in the last few days that media violence is a significant problem. What’s less clear is precisely what to do about it. Aside from the research on parental intervention, little has been done to determine the best way to address the problem. If the goal is to reduce aggression and violence in the greater society, then more resources should be devoted to finding solutions, rather than only adding to the voluminous literature indicating that a problem exists.
Personally I think identity theft is one of the biggest boons to privacy advocates in the past decade, because it finally answers the question "why should I care about privacy if I don't have anything to hide?" There are several other examples and classes of threat that I think are equally important though:
One disappointment I have about CFP is how privacy (step two of the privacy chain I talked about last post) is overshadowing discussion about freedom. I think privacy is important and worth fighting to protect, but I mostly see privacy as a way to keep others from gaining power over me (and thus becoming able to harm me) rather than as an end in itself. Sure I'd rather not have people posting nude pictures of me on the net, but I'm a lot more concerned that information collected about me isn't used to steal my identity or deny me a loan, employment or insurance. The debate between privacy-as-means-to-an-end folk like me and privacy-as-intrinsically-valuable folk has played itself out several times over the past few days.
Just had a panel on Privacy Risks of New Passport Technologies, discussing among other things the new RFID tag the US is rolling out for passports in the coming months. The tags will contain a digitally signed copy of your photo plus all the information on your data page except the signature, and will be readable at a distance. The readers are designed to read chips about from about ten centimeters away, but the danger is that it's possible to design devices that read the tag from longer distances. The exact distances possible aren't clear to me, but a speaker from the ACLU demonstrated reading a passport with the type of RFID being used from three to four feet away. The State Department is now promising the passport cover will include a Faraday cage to prevent reading when the passport is closed, but that won't help when the passport is opened.
The dangers really boil down to someone snooping or stealing one's identity at a distance without one's knowledge or consent:
Sounds like pretty big flaws in something in theory designed to make us safer, all of which would be solved by simply making the data only communicate through physical contact. The lone proponent on the panel was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Passport Services Frank Moss. I was rather unimpressed with his answers — many parts sounded like a song and dance surrounded by apologies for not really understanding the technology (and thus not being able to explain any details. However, he did answer the one main question I had: why the heck did the US push so hard for passports that could be read at a distance? His answer seems to boil down to it was cheaper and a little more flexible. Specifically:
I'm sympathetic to the difficulties in standardizing over a hundred national documents, but that's a piss-poor excuse given the potential security holes it opens up. The follow-up argument of "we were stupid when we pushed for it, but it's too late now so tough" is equally unacceptable in my mind.
Update 4/14/05: Ed Felton at Freedom to Tinker was at the same panel and has posted his own summary. His conclusion about the reason we're getting stuck with a contactless system are in line with my own: "In short, this looks like another flawed technology procurement program."
After a couple days soaking in privacy issues I'm starting to break everything into a three-part chain: identification, information and actions. (Appropriately enough for this conference, these these are fairly well associated with computers, privacy and freedom respectively.)
Many people have just a visceral negative reaction to someone knowing too much about them, but the consequences are mostly in part 3 — that's where you get stung. That said, sometimes the best way to stop something bad happening in step 3 is to stop steps 1 or 2 from happening, and often you never even find out that you didn't get a loan or a job due to a privacy violation.
Interesting comment by Edward Hasbrouck about the collection of data on where everyone travels, especially the collection of air-travel data. He sees the US, and especially people living in New York City (media) and Washington D.C. (government), as collectively suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after 9/11. The Travel Panopticon is the core of that response to 9/11/2001. Our first response was panic, leading to investigation: integrated databases, etc. Now we're entering second phase of PTSD: trama, leading us to go from investigation into surveillance. Our main thrust is explicit prohibition of anonymous travel, and by that act to enforce the non-transportation of undesirables.
This sort of panic explains for why we require all sorts of inconvenient and sometimes dangerous privacy-violations when it comes to travel, even though it doesn't make us more secure. As Bruce Schneier points out, asking for ID before you get on a plane not only doesn't stop terrorists (unless we can convince them to put "terrorist" on their cards) but it doesn't even keep people from passing tickets on to someone else. When you're in a state of panic, it doesn't matter if something is sensible — you just want to be doing something, anything.
Veronica Pinero's presentation, Panopticism vis-a-vis criminal records, had an interesting graphic which I've reproduced on the right. It's a map of all the sex offenders living within a 10-block radius of the CFP conference hotel.
The thing that strikes me is how fear-inducing this list is, both because of what it says and what it leaves out. It includes a map, showing that we're surrounded by no less than 39 sex offenders, and gives their names, mean-looking photos, and the name of the crime they were convicted of. What it leaves out is exactly where they are (addresses only within 100 numbers) and any sort of details of the crime that might help people figure out whether they or their children are actually at risk. I expect most of these guys did horrible things (is there any way "child molestation" can be better than it sounds?). Some I have no idea about, like "indecent liberties," or even whether "child rape" includes a 19-year-old having sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend. More importantly, I don't have any way to tell how frightened I should be or what I should do about it. Avoid downtown? Lock myself in my house? Buy duct tape? What good is this information to us, beyond making us even more afraid than we already are?
I'll be blogging from Computers, Freedom and Privacy 2005 the next few days, so expect a bunch of posts under the "Big Brother" category.
Another thing I wish I knew about long ago: http://printfreegraphpaper.com/. Good source of PDFs for graph paper in a variety of types, measures and pitches. Prints in faint grey. (By way of the Seattle Times technology section.)
Remember the Doodle Writer, the writing-desk toy with the magnetic stylus that lets kids (or you) write without making a mess? Well, Pilot has the same thing in whiteboard size. It's called the CleanWriter Chalkless Board, and it's mainly being marketed as a whiteboard replacement for clean rooms. A coworker of mine just picked one up for the new playroom he's setting up for his two-year-old — I'll post an update when I find out how she likes it. (I know I'd think it was way cool at age two — or even age 35.)
Nice piece of glue by Paul Rademacher, combining Google Maps with Craigslist to produce a great integrated service. This is exactly what I wish I'd had when I was looking for a house all last year. (Thanks to Adam for the link!)
EFF has posted a short paper on how to blog without getting fired, breaking it down roughly into (1) blog pseudonymously, (2) limit your audience and (3) know your (lack of) legal rights.
It's unfortunate that (4) come to a reasonable agreement with management about what's acceptable wasn't even in the running. That's a tricky negotiation though, both because once you broach the subject it's much harder to go back to being anonymous and because your management might feel OK about looking the other way but when pressed might feel the need to say no rather than yes. And when it comes to protecting themselves from upper management or angry stockholders should your blog embarrass the company, they're probably right.
I'm of two minds when it comes to pseudonymous writing. On the one hand, I still want more choice of soft walls when it comes to managing what I write. Mailing lists and things like LiveJournal's friends lists are good starts, but what I really want is a publish-this-to-everyone-except-those-who-would-get-me-in-trouble-for-what-I-wrote button. But on the other hand, I can't help but see such a button as a kind of cowardly way out. Maybe it just stirs some deep emotion implanted during half-listened to high-school discussions of Thoreau, but isn't the measure of a writer, at least in some small way, just how much trouble his writing gets him into?
The crux of the problem is the fact that you needn't register a work with the Copyright office, or even put the little "(C) Copyright 2005" mark on it for it to be copyrighted anymore, nor do you need to renew. A doodle on a napkin is just as copyrighted as a composition registered with the Copyright office (though you can't collect damages until you actually register the work). So nowadays copyright isn't even fire-and-forget — the gun can be still sitting on the mantle. Until that's changed I'm not sure of a good way out of this morass.
Personally I'd like the current copyright rights only be enforceable for works that are registered with the Copyright Office, with the onus of the copyright holder to update his or her contact information in a timely fashion, and every so often to take active steps to renew the copyright. These shouldn't be onerous steps -- a simple form with little or no processing fee should be sufficient. If a work is not registered or renewed, or if it's deemed impossible to find the copyright owner, then the either the work should fall into the public domain or possibly become protected under a much more limited set of copyright restrictions such as those provided under the Creative Commons Attribution License.
Movable Type has so much effort going into trying to block spam — I wish they'd put even half that effort into making a half-decent interface for just deleting comments in bulk...
On second thought, it could be that the map is correct and the satellite images are skewed to locally fit the Google perspective. Maybe the map is the territory after all!
As a side-note, the Google Maps URL includes GPS coordinates, so given a street address you can get both GPS coords and satellite map quickly and easily. You can also just erase the part from
q=Blah+blah& part of the URL to get a nice clean satelite image, or just add
&t=k to an existing Google Maps URL to turn it into a satellite image. (I really hope that doesn't become an issue for some well-meaning panic-stricken patriot who thinks terrorists couldn't get that info quickly and easily in dozens of other ways — I always missed that GPS feature when it was taken out of earlier mapping software.)
Update 7:40pm: Note that you need to click on "Link to this page" in the upper right-hand corner to get the full URL to show up in the address bar.
I did my level best to completely ignore the Teri Schiavo case, but a coworker and I were talking about how easy it is to sympathize with her parents, to understand their desire to keep her alive regardless of her state. And I do sympathize with that desire. I also suspect, though, that hanging on like they have these past 15 years has been destructive for their lives, and hope that now they may finally be able to grieve and move on in their lives.
Our culture has a long tradition of fighting to keep what we have, and institutions to help us fight. We have churches to bind us to our culture's morality, political organizations to insure our rights aren't trampled, medical research to hang on to youth and health for just a few years more. These are all good things. But I think we need more focus on institutions to help us accept when things change, death being the ultimate change that we all face. It's not easy to let go of a an addiction, a loved one who's gone or a belief that has outlived its usefulness. Sometimes we need help and support just to let go.
This is wonderful. In 1951, Edward R. Murrow asked Americans, both famous and everyday, to express their beliefs in 500 words. Every week an essay would be played on national radio, read in the author's own voice. Now NPR, Atlantic Public Media and This I Believe, Inc. are recreating 'This I Believe' both on the radio and online.
From Jay Allison's introduction, read today on All Things Considered:
In a media climate of Hyper-reality Television and Conflict Radio, of aggressive pundits, of innuendo, harangue, and attack - we're trying to create not more noise, but a quiet place. A place to listen. As it was fifty years ago, This I Believe will be noted not for its clamor, but for its calm. We are eager for your contribution.
Essays from the original series, including ones from Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson and Harry Truman, can be found at ThisIBelieve.com (redirects to the NPR.org site). There you can also submit your own essays and join the discussion.
There've been a lot of good 4/1 posts today, but I especially like EFF's press release on the Ninth Circuit's new "one-point journalist test" in the Apple "do bloggers count as journalists when it comes to shield laws" case:
"Historically, the relevant question is whether the author had the intent to use the material - sought, gathered or received - to disseminate information to the public and whether such intent existed at the inception of the newsgathering process," wrote Judge Stephen S. Trott in the opinion. "But in an era when anyone with a computer and Internet connection can publish to the world, the key distinguishing factor is whether the author was wearing pants."
The Court looked to the example of blogger/journalist Jeff Gannon, explaining, "When Mr. Gannon was lobbing softball questions to the President on behalf of Talon News, he was acting just like any other member of the White House press corps — and, critically, he was wearing pants. In Mr. Gannon's other Internet publishing endeavors, however, he did not wear pants, and his activities therefore fall outside the boundaries of journalism."
Seth Finkelstein points to the forced stepping down of Michael Gorman (president-elect of the American Library Association) as the latest blog take-down. He's right of course, but blog take-downs are so yesterday's news — the real news (at least from a world-wide perspective) is what he's going to do next:
Gorman will take residency in the London Library and work on the next edition of the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, “now more necessary than ever,” Gorman wrote, and contribute original cataloging. “I’m increasingly suspicious of the value of cooperative cataloging. What is really gained?”
It's nice to see libraries are finally giving up on this whole one-size-fits-all approach to information sciences. Hopefully this will eventually lead to complete personalization, where there's no need for librarians at all because everyone is his own librarian, each with his own personalized mental map of the universe and search engines and filters tuned to that model. You could have personalized literature, history, or even physics instantly translated to match your own language, education, IQ and cultural upbringing — just like we use the blogsphere to translate the daily news today.