Blown To Bits

Archive for August, 2010

File under: If it can be done it will be done

Monday, August 30th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Now here is an interesting Twitter feed: A running report on every book being checked out of all of Harvard’s libraries. Feels voyeuristic to me, but you have to stretch your imagination to figure out how this would be an invasion of privacy. If the tweets are close to real time, maybe somebody could watch who comes out of Widener library right after “Anglo-Saxon Wills” was checked out, and maybe identify the person who is trying to challenge a millennium-old bequest. (That is a real example — at least the name of the book part.) Still, even without being able to figure out who is reading this stuff, knowing that SOMEBODY is RIGHT NOW finding a need to read that classic tome, “Documents diplomatiques. Deuxième Conférence internationale pour la répression de la traite des blanches (18 avril-4 mai 1910),” — well, I just can’t help thinking it is none of my business. The book is about the white slave trade. Am I just a prude?

Re-identification is a very sophisticated art these days. Maybe someone can figure out how to make mischief by correlating these data with some other source. I can’t think of a way off the top of my head. What think you?

In the category of anything that can happen, will happen

Thursday, August 5th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Especially if it is the government that has the capability.

How many times were we told that the full body scanners at airports would be incapable of storing and transmitting images? Turns out they actually do have that capability. In one courthouse they have been used to store tens of thousands of images, apparently to reduce staffing demands (CNET report here). If something bad happens later, they can go back and check the images. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed suit about this.

The TSA spec document (pdf here), obtained by EPIC, says “the capability to capture images of non-passengers for training and evaluation purposes is needed,” a capability that seems to have been used by one TSA worker to tease another about the size of his genitalia (ACLU report here).

I happen to have no problem personally with full body scanners, but I am sympathetic with people who do. (This is a little a homeless person saying he has no problem with burglars. My body scan would not bring much on the image market.) Of course, what the government has accomplished by misrepresenting what the machines can do is to make it more likely that people like me will resist using them, or cooperating with any other kind of government data gathering. This should have been the lesson of the Bush warrantless wiretaps. It is one of the side effects of government growth that it becomes harder to monitor and those inside it become increasingly relaxed about infringements of publicly stated policies, as along as they judge that the exceptions either minor or due to extraordinary circumstances, and are meant ultimately to benefit the public.