Blown To Bits

Archive for April, 2008

Freedom of Texting

Friday, April 11th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

If you use your phone to talk about how bad your phone company is, could the phone company cut off your service?

The answer, believe it or not, seems to be, “It depends.” If you are merely talking on the phone, then no, the phone company has to let you do it. But if you are texting, the answer seems to be yes, your service could legally be terminated.

The reason this gets tricky even to explain is that there really is no such thing as a phone company any more. Verizon, which absorbed my old land line company, sells video services. Comcast, which used to be my cable TV company, now provides my residential “land line” service.

“Common carrier” laws have applied in the past to railroads (they couldn’t pick and choose among passengers; anyone with the money to buy a ticket is equally entitled to a seat) and to telephones (so phone companies couldn’t pick and choose their customers on political grounds, for example). As discussed in Blown to Bits, Verizon denied Naral Pro-Choice America the opportunity to create a text messaging group on the basis that it might be used for ‘controversial’ messages. It backed down on the case but not on its legal right to discriminate as it chose.

The FCC is now accepting comments on how text messaging should be treated in the code, like telephoning, where the service provider can’t control what the customers say, or like broadcasting, where the people who own the antenna get editorial control over what gets said. If you think this is a ridiculous no-brainer, you’re mistaken. It’s a real battle and the FCC needs to hear from as many people as possible.

The easiest thing to do is to go to the webform on the Public Knowledge site and to fill it out. PK also has a great deal more information about the issue. There is only a short window of opportunity; please act!

The Underground Bits Economy

Thursday, April 10th, 2008 by Hal Abelson

One sign of a maturing industry is the development of aftermarkets. First there were cars, then there were used car dealers. And first there were bits, and then there were … used bits dealers? Some used bits transactions are legit, if possibly annoying. You give Sam’s Health Foods your email address so Sam can confirm your order for organic bean sprouts, and the next thing you know, you are receiving emails from Mary’s Gardening Tools. Sam decided to share his email address files with Mary, and Mary thinks that bean-sprout-eaters are more likely than other people to be gardeners. Of course, this is the kind of “sharing” that puts a few bucks in Sam’s pocket.

Other used bits dealers are like the people who steal catalytic converters and fancy headlamps from late-model cars and then sell them on the black market. There is a robust underground economy in bank account numbers, credit card numbers, eBay accounts, and even full identities. According to Symantec Global Internet Security Threat Report (downloadable free here), the going rate for bank account numbers is $10-$1000, while credit card numbers are $0.40-$20.00 each (but are usually sold in bulk). Bank account numbers cost more, because getting money from a bank account is quicker and, if properly done, leaves fewer fingerprints than converting a credit card number to cash. Identities go for $1-$15, but EU identities cost more than US identities, perhaps because of rising demand.

It’s a fascinating report. Symantec is in the security business, but many of the trends and recommendations are of general interest, unrelated to Symantec’s products. For example, the robust market in bank account and credit card numbers has made services like Paypal increasingly popular. Such electronic payment systems are guaranteed against misuse and they do not require revealing any financial information to the online store.

Is your front yard private?

Sunday, April 6th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

If you use Google Maps to get directions to where I live, you can get what Google calls a Street View, a clear picture of my house. You can’t see in my windows, but you can see my run-down car parked in the driveway. Were it not for the fact that the setting sun caused glare in the camera lens, you could read my license plate. The Google filming crew plainly did me a favor by coming by on a day when the lawn happened to have been cut. The place doesn’t usually look that nice.

Try typing in your own address. Street View covers only a few cities, so your place may not be Street Viewable. Yet.

In the book, we say that things that have always been public are now VERY public. Google isn’t showing the world anything it hasn’t always been possible to see from the street. It is, as they say, a Street View. It’s just that everybody in Tajikistan with an Internet connection can now see the same things that people driving down my street have always been able to see. The Boston Globe reports that a couple living in a Pittsburgh suburb is suing Google to stop this invasion of privacy. Maybe they have a stronger case than you or I would have. They say the driveway from which the photos must have been taken is labeled “Private Road,” so Google’s truck should not have been on it. Or maybe their privacy case is not so strong. The county real estate web site also has a photo of their house, and lots of others, which anyone can view.

We mean two things by our title, Blown to Bits. First, that vast quantities of information have been digitized and spread suddenly to everyone, thanks to the wonders of modern electronics, such as digital cameras and the Internet. And second, that our understanding of familiar concepts, such as privacy, have taken a jolt as a result. There is no consensus on how old laws and conventions apply, or how they need to change.

Like it or not, the digital explosion has consequences that are being worked out right now. The way the world will work in the future is being determined by decisions being taken right now.


Friday, April 4th, 2008 by tim

Welcome to the Blown to Bits blog.

This book is filled with stories, some historical, and many contemporary - from Tanya Rider who disappeared, and was located because her cell phone (like all cell phones) had constantly reported its location until its battery died Рto the amazing story of Hedy Lamarr.  If you have read the book, you likely see things differently, recognizing that much of what we see around us is now tied to bits, inextricably linked to the digital explosion.

Each of the stories we tell eludicates some aspect of the impact of the digital explosion on our lives,  an aspect of the difficulty that laws and regulations have keeping up with the exponential growth in capacity and complexity of information technologies, an aspect of the transformation of society, an aspect of new perspectives on our lives.  Each of these stories raises as many issues as it answers.

We are living in the midst of the digital explosion.  Like heat from the sun, it continues.

In this blog we will comment often on the changes around us, on contemporary events that, beneath the surface, are “bits” stories.  Mostly, though, we invite your participation.