Blown To Bits

McCain, Obama, and koan #6

Sunday, July 20th, 2008 by Hal Abelson

Readers of Blown to Bits know that when it comes to bits, nothing goes away (koan #6). Information, even information you’ve deleted, can come back to your surprise – and your embarrassment. In the book, we illustrated this at Harvard University’s expense by showing that an outspoken presidential statement on Harvard’s Web site about the scientific abilities of women had quickly been replaced by a more conciliatory version, and yet the original remained accessible to anyone who thought to look in Google’s cache.

The McCain campaigners had similar fun last week at Obama’s expense when they revealed how the Obama Web site’s statement on the plan for ending the war in Iraq was substantially rewritten between June 11 and July 14. For instance, where the earlier version led with “Bring our troops home,” the later version spoke of “A responsible, phased withdrawal.” The McCain camp scolded that this was politics-as-usual flip-flopping; Obama supporters replied that that it was simply elaborating a position and to more details. The tussle is unlikely to sway any votes.

What’s more interesting from a Bits perspective is that the McCain folks discovered the change through a new on-line service called Versionista <>, which is set up to track just these kinds of changes to web sites. Tell Versionista to monitor a web site, and it will watch it constantly, keeping track of every addition or deletion, and show you side-by-side comparisons of the different versions with the changes highlighted. You can compare Obama’s before and after Iraq plans yourself by following this Versionista link.

We can be sure that Obama and McCain through November – and perhaps all political campaigns from now on – will think twice when they modify their Web sites. That goes for the rest of us as well: anything you place on the Web can now be monitored by an automated agent in the service of a competitor, enemy, or rival, and any change or inconsistency can be thrown back in your face.

There are many more shoes yet to drop in this tale of automated change monitoring. Here‚Äôs something to ponder, relating to subpoenas for email and other documents: Word processors make automated backups as you write. You might type a phrase as you are composing and delete it almost immediately, and yet the original fleeting text might have been caught by a backup. If your documents are subpoenaed, do you have to turn over only the final versions, or the backup drafts as well? You might end up having to answer not only for email messages you sent, but for the unedited drafts of those messages, including the stupid   ill-considered words that you later edited out. The issue hasn‚Äôt yet come up in court, but those drafts fit the legal definition of ‚Äústored documents‚Äù and so in principle should be turned over. We can be sure that the issue will arise before long.

As the book says, bits never go away; they can’t even be replaced.

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