Blown To Bits

Archive for June, 2008

FISA: Obama’s Iraq-War Vote?

Saturday, June 21st, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The House passed the revised and extended Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the Senate is sure to follow suit next week. ArsTechnica has a good explanation of how the bill undercuts constitutional assurances that the government will not spy on its citizens. And also of why the guarantees that really, truly the government will play by the rules now are nothing more than was already present in the previous legislation and ignored by the the Bush administration.

Today’s news (see the Washington Post story) is that Obama will vote for this bill, while promising to watch its application if he becomes president.¬†

One of the things Obama stressed in his primary campaigns was that he voted against the war in Iraq, and that Clinton voted for it. Obama cast himself as the cautious one, the one prepared to say that the president’s say-so for going to war was not enough. Certainly, many who voted for the war did so out of fear that they would seem weak if Saddam Hussein really did have WMD’s; Clinton and others erred on the side of not being seen as risking the security of the nation, and Obama roundly criticized them for having done so.

Here Obama is doing the same thing. His reputation in military and defense matters being open to question because of his inexperience, he is trying to establish himself as a strong defender of national security. He apparently doesn’t need to court the civil libertarian voters, believing they have nowhere else to go.

It doesn’t look like this can be an issue for the debates, since McCain is planning to vote the same way. I wonder what Clinton’s plans are.


Warrentless Wiretapping

Friday, June 20th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

I would not have wanted to be in the position of the telephone company executives who had to decide whether to wiretap American citizens illegally at the request of the government. At least I assume there was some such scenario, someone in the telcos who hesitated a moment about the right and wrong of the decision. Was it presented as something patriotic and, if arguably illegal, something for which the telcos were assured a later get-out-of-jail-free card? Or was it presented as more of a threat, with the government reminding the executives that they were in a highly regulated business, and the FCC and other authorities could make unrelated decisions that hurt the profits of uncooperative carriers in the future?

Probably we’ll never know, because the matter will never come to trial. The companies are being given immunity from private lawsuits by citizens who were illegally wiretapped. The New York Times story seems reasonably fair, and quotes one of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lawyers.

So a Democratic congress has bailed out a Republican president’s illegal methods of surveillance on American citizens. The re-upped FISA seems to have some “never again” language along with the immunity provisions, but as a way to run the country we seem to have taken a great leap: The executive commands private businesses to do something illegal to private citizens, the corporations cooperate, and after the fact, the legislature bails out the executive branch and protects the profits of the corporations in one fell swoop.

Of the people, by the people, and for the people?

Inspirational Message of the Day

Friday, June 20th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Theory is when you know everything, but nothing works.
Practice is when everything works, but no one knows why.
In this room theory and practice come together …
Nothing works and no one knows why.

– From a sign in the office of a nurse at the Harvard Health Service, there attributed to a poster seen in Haderslev, Denmark

McCain and Google

Thursday, June 19th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

In 1992, George H. W. Bush exhibited pleased astonishment when he discovered that supermarkets used barcode readers for the prices of items at the cash register. It should perhaps not have been surprising that he had not recently done any grocery shopping, but it raised the question of whether his familiarity with the way the world actually works had given him the right instincts on policy issues as president.

Last week John McCain said he was using Google (or perhaps “a Google”) to vet his vice presidential candidates. It’s certainly true, as he went on to say, that “What you can find out now on the Internet — it’s remarkable.”¬†The remark seemed a bit off, not that it isn’t true, but because, like Bush’s, it seems to indicate a bit too much surprise for the time it was spoken, and too little sense of the technology’s limitations. (Blown to Bits might be good bedtime reading for him.)

A friend pointed me to a video from earlier in the campaign that may help explain McCain’s comment about Google. McCain acknowledges that he doesn’t use a personal computer at all. “I am an illiterate who has to rely on my wife for all the assistance that I get,” he says. He doesn’t seem proud of it, though, and maybe his more recent “Google” remark shows he is trying to catch up.

The campaign is showing plenty of heat around energy policy. Will technology policy be an issue at all? How well prepared are the candidates to discuss the challenges that lie ahead? What would be some good questions they might be asked during whatever “debates” may occur?

Ban Anonymity?

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

I have a short piece on the InformIT web site on the difficult question of sites such as, which invite anonymous slander. Anyone attacked on these sites must experience deep pain and feel utterly helpless. Here is an unsolved problem in our legal and social system, how to provide some protection against such viciousness without imperiling the freedom of the Web as an expressive medium.

Prostitution Is Now a Bits Business

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The New York Times reports on a web site where you can rate prostitutes on a 0 to 10 scale, like for rating college professors. The man who started the prostitute-rating site said he did so because “There was no way to hold people accountable for their actions.” Some prostitutes¬†are reportedly worried about what will happen to their business if the site closes down. The rankings have gotten so important that one “escort service” threatened antitrust action when it was excluded, claiming that being listed was “essential to effectively compete in the upscale escort services market.”

Who knew? A lot of people, apparently; the site gets up to a million hits a month.

Book launch Wednesday!

Monday, June 16th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The official book launch is this Wednesday, June 18, at the Harvard Coop in Harvard Square, at 7pm. Ken and I will be there, and we’ll have the whole ground floor. It will be informal and friendly. Come and join the conversation. (Hal, alas, will be on the west coast.)

NB: Amazon says the book will not be available until July 15, but that is false. They will start to turn up in bookstores this week, and Amazon should be shipping very soon.

The Crisis in Internet Measurement

Sunday, June 15th, 2008 by Hal Abelson

Two dozen leading Internet researchers met last week at a workshop hosted by Google in Mountain View to discuss the growing crisis in network measurement.

The crisis is this: despite the critical importance of the Internet infrastructure, no one really knows how well the Net is working and how well it will hold up under increasing use. The measurement data that would help network researchers analyze network performance isn’t being collected ‚Äî perhaps it can’t be.

As a consumer, you can tell when your cable TV channels are on the fritz, or when your cell phone reception is poor. But when your Web response is sluggish or you can’t connect to a favorite site, you’re pretty much in the dark. It might be that the site you’re trying to connect to is down or overloaded, but it might also be a loose connection in your house, or a problem with your computer’s settings, or a program bug.

It might also be that your Internet service provider is intentionally slowing down your connection for various applications, a practice known as traffic shaping or, more pejoratively, as data discrimination. University network services and some other ISPs often do this to slow down response on peer-to-peer sharing for music or video files. Or an ISP might actively disrupt the flow of packets by injecting spurious reset commands into TCP streams, one of the techniques used in the “Great Firewall of China” to block connections to politically undesirable sites. And not only China. In 2007 rumors circulated around the Net that Comcast was actively interfering with peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic. Comcast denied it, but measurements performed last October by the Associated Press revealed that Comcast was in fact disrupting those connections.

For the average person, there’s almost no information available on which to base informed decisions about the service provided by an ISP. The factors affecting performance and too complex, and the data is simply unavailable.

And the situation isn’t much better for top network experts. Even for the Internet’s core, there are no good public sources of performance data; indeed, measurement data is often kept secret, since it’s considered to be valuable proprietary information by service providers. Researchers simply don’t know, for example, which segments of the Internet are particularly vulnerable to congestion, or what fraction of Internet traffic is due to viruses and spam.

The experts in Mountain View last week, many of whom conduct their own measurement experiments, discussed ways of sharing data and methods for getting better results. They also considered creating tools that non-experts could use to get information on the performance of Internet connections. The Electronic Frontier Foundation provides links to some tools at, but these are limited and hard to use, and the results are difficult to interpret.

There were ideas for improving testing, but privacy is a real quandary: effective testing requires combining measurements from multiple sources. A public database of detailed network performance measurements would be a boon to research, but the same database could be mined for details about who was using the Internet when, and for what. The dilemma is like the privacy tradeoffs for epidemiological studies, between the needs of public-health experts and the desire to preserve privacy of individual medical records.

For such critical infrastructure as the Internet, the ignorance of consumers and experts alike is troubling and potentially dangerous. In the words of K Claffy of the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA):

While the core of the Internet continues its relentless evolution, scientific measurement and modeling of its systemic characteristics has largely stalled. What little measurement is occurring reveals some disturbing realities about the ability of the Internet’s architecture to serve society’s needs and expectations.

Privacy in the Boston Globe

Saturday, June 14th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

I have a piece in the Boston Globe this morning about social networks and other threats to privacy. It’s the most e-mailed.

I didn’t pick or get consulted on the title; that’s generally the rule for these opinion pieces. I’m a bit sorry that it comes out as picking on Facebook, which is merely the most successful and probably no worse on privacy matters than many other sites. As a title for this piece about the privacy wars, I might have chosen instead Pogo’s classic wisdom, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The “agreement” between New York and the ISPs

Thursday, June 12th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have reported on the agreement reached between the Attorney General of New York (Andrew Cuomo) and several Internet Service Providers (Verizon, Sprint, and Times Warner Cable) to limit the dissemination of child pornography. I had planned to blog this as soon as I read the story in the Times, because it seemed to me an important development. Then I hesitated, because after reading that story, I couldn’t figure out what was really going on. The Post’s story is clearer, but you need to dig deeper, for example into Susan Crawford’s blog, to get the details.

As a step toward controlling child pornography, the agreement appears to accomplish very little. The ISPs have already been taking down child pornography when it is reported to them, and have been sharing information and cooperating with law enforcement. (Child pornography is illegal. First Amendment protections don’t apply, because of the harm done to children while producing it.) The ISPs will be checking for duplicates of known child-pornography images, using a “hash value” of the photos (a digital fingerprint that can be easily checked). This is an attempt to block the same images from turning up in new places. It’s not likely to be very effective for very long; it’s easy to disguise the images so they have different hash values. The mice always win such cat and mouse games. If the tests for what constitutes a “match” are made looser, legal material is going to be blocked at the same time.

The agreement does give the Attorney General a political victory, at no apparent cost. How many state AGs get front page coverage of their actions in the nation’s two major dailies, with barely a word of criticism? And what’s the downside? No one defends child pornography. No one. It’s hard to think of another law for which there is such unequivocal support as there is for the anti-child-pornography statutes.

My guess is that it took two seconds for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to get on the phone to Cuomo asking for equal protection. Unauthorized downloads of copyrighted music and movies are also illegal. Most of us don’t feel quite the same revulsion about Madonna downloads as we do about child rapes, but the recording and movie industries have tried in the past to create just such analogies. The MPAA president once told Congress that video recording was to his industry “as¬†the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.‚Äù

If ISP’s can be coerced into “agreeing” to make sure you don’t get illegal photos, they can be coerced into “agreeing” to watch for you illegally downloading songs. The New York AG’s announcement is precedent-setting. Watch closely for what happens next. There will be much “if you’re not doing anything illegal, you have nothing to worry about,” and when it turns out that legal material is being blocked and innocent parties are being prosecuted, a good dose of “we’re never going to accomplish anything about this terrible problem if we don’t at least try.”

(P.S. Today’s TImes story on the First Amendment in the context of the global Internet is much better than its coverage of the child pornography agreement. This issue is¬†also¬†discussed in “Blown to Bits.”)

Postscript added at 5pm. The easiest and surest way for ISPs to comply with this agreement is to drop some or all of the Usenet newsgroups, even though less than 1% have ever been found to have any child pornography on them. It seems that some of the ISPs are planning to do exactly that. Thus does voluntary self-censorship again, carving out huge areas of legally protected material as the cheapest way to satisfy agreements with the state to screen out a tiny amount of illegal material.