Blown To Bits

Second Edition Now Available

August 30th, 2021 by wseltzer

Much has changed since Blown to Bits v1 was published — yet many of the same principles can still guide our thinking about the world of bits.

The Second Edition adds new consideration of artificial intelligence, algorithmic discrimination, and the rise of social media’s new gatekeepers. We track privacy developments after Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA spying and mass personalization, and watch copyright wars shift from peer-to-peer to streaming (and stream takedowns). We follow as bits perfuse our lives and homes — join us!

Moving on

December 20th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

So that I can blog about a wider range of subjects, I am moving my blogging activity over to a new Bits and Pieces blog. I’ll keep up my discussions of the digital explosion there, but I’ll also be talking about education and other issues of the day. See you there!

If You Will Ever Want a Government Job, Don’t Peek at WikiLeaks

December 15th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

The US Government has announced that federal workers should not be looking at the government secrets. Fine; I suppose your employer can tell you what you can’t do. But several experts are extending the logic, saying that succumbing to the temptation to look at the site may permanently disqualify you from ever getting a security clearance, because you could be asked whether you ever looked at classified information you were not authorized to see.

Would they really do that? This article in the Washington Post says they would.

The Career Services Offices of several universities have sent their students warnings about this danger.

This seems crazy on the face of it. Do we really want our future diplomats and intelligence officers to be the only people in the country who haven’t found out what those cables say? Should these universities be telling their students also not to read the New York Times, which has published some of this classified information?

By the way, if you want to risk your future security clearance by listening to the cables rather than looking at them, this site will give you audio versions.

Oops! No security clearance for me now; I just clicked that link.

The Fourth Amendment Protects Your Email

December 15th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

A year and a half ago I blogged about the case of Steven Warshak, whose email the US government had obtained without a search warrant. At that point the opinion of the court was that no warrant was needed to obtain your email from your ISP. The reasoning was a bit like the original court view of telephone wiretapping–no warrant needed, since after all, what did you think was going to happen to your conversation once it left the confines of your house?

A US court of appeals has now held that the government needs a search warrant to get your email. “Given the fundamental similarities between email and traditional forms of communication,” the court writes, “it would defy common sense to afford emails lesser Fourth Amendment protection.” The court has elected to go with common sense. Bad people do a lot of bad stuff by email, but there is no reason why investigators shouldn’t have to take the same steps to justify their searches they would have to do to open postal mail or listen in on a phone call.

Read the EFF’s announcement, which has a link to the decision.

Would it have been worse or better …

December 4th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

if PFC Manning had given the documents only to the leaders of China, North Korea, and Iran?

Short Course on Privacy, Secrecy, and Censorship

October 28th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I will be teaching a 2-day course, 9-5 on January 10 and 11, on Privacy, Secrecy, and Censorship. This Harvard Division of Continuing Education Professional Development course is for anyone who wants to learn about the digital explosion in one short burst, for either professional or personal reasons.

Several of my colleagues are also teaching fascinating short courses in January, listed on the same web page. There are links for inquiries and registration, or just shoot me an email, to if you want to get info from the horse’s mouth!

You Saw It Here First

October 28th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

The Massachusetts Statute that was the subject of my last blog entry has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

My guess is that this ruling sticks if it is challenged. The legislature was given the opportunity to fix a problem and instead did what it figure would be politically popular, to legislate safety over free speech. Back to the drawing board, folks.

Censorship in Massachusetts

October 19th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Some time ago I blogged about the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that the state’s definition of “matter” did not include text messages. For that reason some creep avoided a conviction for texting a minor with some material that would have been criminal had the material been printed.

The state legislature rushed in to fix the definition. Here are the before and after definitions of “matter” taken from the state laws:

[ Definition of “Matter” effective until July 11, 2010. For text effective July 11, 2010, see below.]

“Matter”, any handwritten or printed material, visual representation, live performance or sound recording including but not limited to, books, magazines, motion picture films, pamphlets, phonographic records, pictures, photographs, figures, statues, plays, dances.

[ Definition of “Matter” as amended by 2010, 74, Sec. 2 effective July 11, 2010. For text effective until July 11, 2010, see above.]

“Matter”, any handwritten or printed material, visual representation, live performance or sound recording including, but not limited to, books, magazines, motion picture films, pamphlets, phonographic records, pictures, photographs, figures, statues, plays, dances, or any electronic communication including, but not limited to, electronic mail, instant messages, text messages, and any other communication created by means of use of the Internet or wireless network, whether by computer, telephone, or any other device or by any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic or photo-optical system.

Now that is certainly inclusive, but probably too inclusive. At least that is the argument being put forward by civil libertarians in challenging the constitutionality of the revised law. From the Associated Press (Washington Post — the Boston papers seem not to have picked up the story):

The content providers say the recent amendments amount to “a broad censorship law” that would ban from the Internet a variety of information that could be seen as harmful to minors, including material about contraception, pregnancy, literature and art that adults have a First Amendment right to view.

Michael Bamberger, an attorney who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the way the law is written, adults cannot speak freely in chat rooms “out of fear that minors will see that as well.”

Nonsense, says the Attorney General’s office.

Assistant Attorney General Jessica Barnett said the new law only prohibits the dissemination of matter that is obscene to minors under a standard set in a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, that is, when the person sending the material specifically intends to disseminate it to someone under the age of 18.

“Absent intent to specifically send it to a minor, there is no crime,” Barnett said.

The problem is you can’t tell who is viewing a web page; nor can you control what web pages Massachusetts children are viewing that come from way beyond the horizon of Massachusetts Law. This all looks like yet another quixotic child-protection statute that will not protect children but will arm prosecutors with a handy tool to go after people saying things they don’t like.

Facebook: More Privacy Woes

October 18th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

The Wall Street Journal reports on leakage of Facebook data to the advertising world, even data held behind what were supposed to be Facebook’s highest level of privacy settings.

Why does this keep happening? Surely not by design on Facebook’s part. The company has been bitten enough times over the past year not to be venal without good cause. I have much less confidence in the intermediaries in the leakage, the data aggregation firm Rapleaf for example, which pled that “We didn’t do it on purpose.” Uh-huh.

Facebook is not just a social network any more. It is an entire operating system on top of which applications run. If you take it with a grain of salt and a roll of the eyes that Windows still has bugs, you should not be surprised that Facebook has bugs. And the more innovative and experimental a computer system is the more likely it is to be buggy.

Of course, any software developer does a risk-reward calculation. The people who build air traffic control systems do more careful testing (and more careful design up front) than the people who build social networking sites, because the harm to the company of a failure is lower, and the benefit to the company of a success is higher. Absent liability for privacy failures, Facebook will keep producing neat products that people love, and patching them when someone points out their problems.

Good job by the WSJ journalists, one of whom, Geoff Fowler, was a reporter for the Harvard Crimson (see this piece on diversity, for example), and also a student in my Bits course when he was an undergraduate at Harvard.

Watching your recycling habits

September 10th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

In what is surely another example of people thinking something is a bright idea just because it is possible, cities are putting RFIDs in recycle bins. The trash collection process weighs the bins and logs who is being naughty in their recycling habits. I had a lot to say about this when the Fox News journalist contacted me. Credit where credit is due — I learned about the process of chipping dairy cows and weighing their milk production from the course project of an undergraduate from Wisconsin several years ago.