Blown To Bits

Archive for January, 2010

Zuckerberg to the World: Privacy? Forget About It

Sunday, January 10th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

A year and a half ago, I wrote an opinion piece entitled How Facebook Spells the End of Privacy. Now Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says he’s sorry he ever built those privacy options into Facebook in the first place. Explaining the company’s decision in September to make all kinds of information public that users used to have the option to keep private—their friends list and the list of pages they subscribe to in particular — Zuckerberg explained,,

A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change – doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.

Zuckerberg says that people are more comfortable sharing and being open than they used to be, and Facebook is just catching up with where society has already gone. Of course this is nonsensical reasoning, unworthy of someone who took a course in computational theory from me (yes, he did). The claim that a lot more people today do X than not-X is no reason to make everyone do X. As Marshall Kirkpatrick observes in the story linked to above, money is a more likely explanation. Having made Facebook nearly ubiquitous, Zuckerberg now sees more money in encouraging (or requiring) people to give up more information about themselves.

There are reasons of personal safety for people to maintain some privacy. There are reasons people want to keep multiple identities (personal and professional, for example) isolated from each other. And there is the big argument, which I put forward in Chapter 2, that privacy is socially progressive—not in the political sense, just in the obvious way, it is easier to think differently, and act differently, if you do so with trusted friends than in the full view of the entire world. I wonder if Zuckerberg would say the same thing about people being more open about everything if he spent a few months in China or in Iran.

The Scarcest Internet Resource?

Saturday, January 9th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

You can’t get the bits if you don’t have a pipe big enough to get them to you. Because of the engineering, political, and geographic challenges of the Internet pipe problem in the US, there has been a lot of attention focused on broadband diffusion — getting high speed connectivity to lots of people. Of course, businesses compete on their ability to deliver bandwidth — at least where there is competition at all. Mostly in the phone space, it seems, though the Comcast-Verizon FIOS argument certainly generates a lot of advertising revenue locally.

But there is another important Internet resource we almost never think about: IP addresses. Or IPv4 addresses to be precise, the 32-bit unique numbers that identify where the bits are supposed to go when any kind of message is sent to your computer. If you go to WhatIsMyIp or any of a number of other sites, you can see your own, shown as four numbers, each less than 256, separated by dots. That’s about 4 billion possibilities in all, a number that seemed unimaginably extravagant at a time that computers were huge.

Today, with computers in everything, even your wristwatch could use its own IP address, and plenty of devices smaller than that. The pool of IP addresses, which were divided into blocks and given out to nations, and within nations to companies and universities and governments, is being rapidly depleted. Not quite as rapidly as had been feared, but still: A story yesterday reported that there are only 625 days of IP addresses left, at the rate the reservoir is draining.

Various things can be done to stretch the supply. Some parties who got more addresses than they really need may be willing to surrender them voluntarily. NAT technology allows multiple connections to use a single IP address, but there are costs to that.

Sooner or later, we are going to run out of addresses. The solution is already known — IPv6, which uses 128-bit addresses. The code is already in the operating systems of computers being shipped today. But the switchover is likely to be hell — think of the switch of broadcast television to digital, with granny suddenly unable to get her soaps. Except that this switch will have a deadline attached to it.

624 days and counting, according to the current estimate …

Cell Phones Prevent Alzheimer’s?

Friday, January 8th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I kid you not. Researchers developed a strain of mice prone to develop Alzheimer’s, and then subjected them to electromagnetic radiation equivalent to talking on a cell phone two hours a day for seven to nine months. The exposed mice tended not to develop the disease as their brethren did.

After long-term exposure to¬†electromagnetic waves such as those used in cell phones, mice genetically altered to develop¬†Alzheimer’sperformed as well on memory and thinking skill tests as healthy mice, the researchers wrote in the¬†Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The study reports the mechanism that is at work — the radiation prevented the buildup of a particular protein associated with Alzheimer’s.

No, We Really Don’t Want This

Thursday, January 7th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I am of libertarian leanings, and I always hate acknowledging that we sometimes need the government to save us from ourselves. I am of two minds about laws against cell phone use while driving — even after a near-death experience las week, when a driver coming down the street in the opposite direction skidded on the ice into my lane of traffic, stopping inches from the front of my car — and never took her cell phone from her ear. (Perhaps she was reasoning correctly that her car was much, much bigger than mine.)

But we really need some regulation on the bright idea of Internet access from our cars’ instrument panels. As the New York Times puts it, Despite Risks, Internet Creeps Onto Car Dashboards.

Not hard to figure how this happened. We should have seen it coming. The technology is getting cheaper. We love the gadgets in our cars, and will trade a perfectly good vehicle for one with a better navigation system, something we never knew we needed. So bingo, we have touch screens with handwriting recognition, so the driver can scribble the name of the band he’s going to hear and get some news flashes about it.

Car regulators, please, please save us from ourselves. Or rather, save the partially sane among us from the idiots who will think they can multitask infinitely with their hands and brains.

Not a Good Beginning to the Decade for Information Freedom

Monday, January 4th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Let’s see.

1) A cartoonist in Denmark is nearly killed for drawing some pictures of a guy with a beard.

2) In Ireland, a law took effect banning blasphemy. A person can be found guilty if “he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” By that standard, the cartoonist would have been guilty, I imagine. Some atheists are challenging the law; other parties are taking it as a model to be urged upon the U.N. Actually, the UN Human Rights Council had already voted to condemn the “defamation of religions.”

3) In India, just as in China, Google is cooperating with the law by censoring politically objectionable content. In this secular democracy, the line between religious and political speech is thin, and the fears of mass riots are real.

“If you are doing business here, you should follow the local law, the sentiments of the people, the culture of the country,” says Gulshan Rai, an official in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, who is overseeing implementation of the new law. “If somebody starts abusing Lord Rama on a Web site, that could start riots,” he said.

Note the pattern here. The first case would be an easy call for many Westerners, but the other two plainly involve friendly democracies suppressing a wide variety of speech that most Americans would take for granted as constitutionally protected. I wonder if the U.S. is going to become an outlier state in this way also, or if the strong conservative religious forces in the U.S. will start persuading legislatures to chip away at free speech rights in the name, ironically, of respect for differences.

4) On the good-news side, not only does opposition video footage continue to get bootlegged out of Iran, but film-making culture continues to thrive through underground distribution networks.

Will digital control or digital liberty be the more powerful force in the next decade? I’m betting on liberty, but it sure isn’t going to be obvious.


Sunday, January 3rd, 2010 by Harry Lewis

The problems that were widely feared fro the year 2000 — computers failing to add 1 to 1999 correctly because they had been coded to use only two digits for the “year” field — have actually occurred, 10 years late. There have been two reports of software thinking the day after December 31, 2009 is January 1, 2016.

Some phones are showing 2016 dates on received text messages.

And some retail computer terminals are making the same mistake, causing them to reject customer credit cards with expiration dates prior to 2016.

What’s up? There is some speculation on Slashdot that (a) only the last two digits are being stored (“10” instead of “2010”), and then (b) the “10” is somehow being interpreted as hexadecimal rather than decimal (which would make it decimal 16).

Nothing is truly hard to imagine in the hearts and minds of a corner-cutting coder, but (a), in this day of cheap memory and with the Y2K problem still in our rear view mirrors, would be really dumb, and (b) requires imagining a really perverse data representation (encoding the decimal digits in successive 4-bit “nibbles”, and then forgetting that you’d done that and interpreting the fully 8-bit byte as a binary number).

Checkmate by World of Warcraft

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010 by Harry Lewis

World of Warcraft (WoW) is a huge online fantasy war game, with more than ten million accounts. Here is a nice holiday-weekend “bits” story: a man with an arrest warrant out on him in Indiana for two years on drug charges has been arrested in Ottawa, Canada. The crucial information as to his whereabouts was provided by Blizzard Entertainment, the game company that runs WoW. As Matt Robertson, the investigator in the county sheriff’s department, tells the Kokomo (IN) Perspective,

“You hear stories about you can’t get someone through the Internet. Guess what? You can. I just did. Here you are, playing World of Warcraft, and you never know who you’re playing with.”

Robertson seems to have take a lot of small steps to put the story together. A childhood friend of the suspect said he had moved to Canada — good to know, of course, but making many of the standard law enforcement protocols useless. Somewhere along the line a tip came in that he was a WoW fan, so the investigator sent a subpoena for the suspect’s records — a transnational subpoena with no legal force at all.

“They don’t have to respond to us, and I was under the assumption that they wouldn’t,” said Roberson. “It had been three or four months since I had sent the subpoena. I just put it in the back of my mind and went on to do other things. Then I finally got a response from them. They sent me a package of information. They were very cooperative. It was nice that they were that willing to provide information.”

That information included the suspect’s IP address, in particular. From the IP address Robertson got the latitude and longitude (here is one site that will do that for you) and then used Google Earth to home in on the neighborhood. He couldn’t quite get to the street address that way, but close enough that Canadian authorities did the rest.

So just remember that. In a multiuser game you can think of yourself as living out of time, out of space, and out of your own skin, but you aren’t. Someone knows a great deal about you, and might even be willing to answer a polite request to reveal it.

Which may be what we actually want. Or is it?